The peak of Ben Nevis is arguably one of the best known and most accessible popular mountains in the world. Standing proud above the Highland town of Fort William at 1,344 metres, Scotland and Britain’s highest summit draws in day hikers, tourists and climbers from far and wide.
Most walkers summit the Ben via the relatively straightforward meandering footpath rising from Glen Nevis, situated just outside Fort William, by a track known as the mountain track, pony track or ‘Tourist path’; a busy but still demanding, if slightly unspectacular route (in comparison to others) offering a four hour ascent and fine views across the western Highlands of Scotland when the weather allows.
What walkers don’t see from this route are the spectacular and towering cliffs of the North Face; home to popular and challenging climbing routes to the summit, and a sharp contrast to the grassy lower slopes seen from the switchbacks of the south facing mountain path.
In the winter of 2014, I walked the short distance from the Forestry Commission Scotland North Face car park near Torlundy, up to the CIC hut in the shadow of the North Face for a close up view of these incredible features that do the Ben the justice it deserves.
It was my first experience of winter conditions for a while. Living in the south of England, I make it to Scotland once or twice a year only. This visit was for the Christmas holidays, and a combination of bad weather in the morning and festive idleness meant that we did not reach the car park just north of Fort William until after lunch, ruling out a trip to the summit before nightfall.
The conditions, to my eyes, were great. The inclement weather of the morning had subsided to be replaced by nearly cloudless skies, while the cold of the winter air had frozen the puddles in the car park overnight. A very light dusting of fresh snow covered the ground, even at this low height, probably no more than 50m to 100m above sea level. The car park was nearly full, with dormant vehicles sitting waiting for early risers to return from the summit; who had, I assume, arrived at dawn, eager to crack on with their day no matter what the weather.
Our late arrival did mean, however, that we had the footpath to ourselves, rising quickly up through the trees; through woodland that felt more like the Pacific Northwest forests in Canada than the highlands of Scotland. About twenty minutes in, through an avenue of the trees, the path turned sharply left, bringing into view Fort William below us, the town hugging the doglegged apex of the shores where Loch Linnhe twists nearly ninety degrees to become Loch Eil.
The path twisted through the edge of the forest, eventually reaching a higher, smaller car park for the Forestry Commission, where, after crossing the fence via an elaborate style, the landscape opened up to reveal its widest panorama. Away to the left were from the slopes of the Nevis Range ski centre; the higher reaches of the chair lifts and drag lifts just about visible. The sloping peak adjacent to this, now directly in front of our position, rises quite steeply upwards to eventually form the Carn Mor Dearg (or the CMD, roughly translated as ‘Giant Red Peak’, itself the eight highest in the UK) and it’s incredible arête – a sharp, jagged ridge of almost Alpine character, one that curves right, up and around the valley we were walking in for our walk, up to the summit of Nevis – itself a spectacular route (and my preferred route) to the top of Britain, and one of the finest walks and scrambles in the country.
For today, unfortunately, we had started too late to summit in daylight, although I would be lying if I didn’t have a half thought and a quick check of the time to see if, just if, it was possible to reach the summit in time before darkness descended upon us. The excesses of the Christmas break meant that we’d taken a mixture of a traditional Christmas, but also trying to make the most of being in a playground of nature. I only had four days in Scotland before heading back to London, and back to reality, and wanted to make the most of the time spent in my favourite environment, just enjoying the solitude and openess of the mountain surroundings. The weather, now improving all the time, certainly wasn’t the issue. My heart said yes, but my head said no. We hadn’t left the house with the intention of summiting the Ben today, armed with only our day bags full of basic kit, hot chocolate powder, lunch (ie not much food or adequate equipment including crampons and axes). It would have be pretty daft to consider an attempt to the top, as much as I wanted to.
At this height, the frost covered grass and vegetation was morphing into being covered completely by a small blanket of fresh snow. Shallow puddles that lay on our path had frozen over, just enough for any water to solidify, but not strong enough to hold the weight of a person. We kept following the path of the small burn – the Allt a’ Mhuillin river that snakes its way down the valley towards the River Lochy and finally Loch Linnhe, collecting snowy meltwater and rain from the northern slopes of the Ben and the CMD arête horseshoe. Without really noticing, we had gained quite a lot of height, and could now just about think about being able make out the flrst sighting of the CIC hut, still about thirty to forty minutes walk away.
The silence was temporarily broken by the familiar and unmistakable woosh-woosh-woosh of the rotors of a Royal Navy Coastguard helicopter from far behind us, the colours and features of the Sea King clear as the chopper came towards us ever closer. These remarkable birds patrol the skies around Fort William, valuably assisting with search and rescue operations among other things. As the helicopter passed us, it was close enough to make out the distinctive red and grey markings. Usually, the sight of such a helicopter means that it is on the way to rescue someone or something in peril. We paused on the path, gazing skywards as it shot overhead, no more than 100-150ft above us before turning through an 180 degree angle roughly at the location of the CIC hut and headed back towards us.
My thoughts quickly shifted from admiration to concern. Presumably, they were looking for someone, and would they think it was us? Rather than stopping, we started to continue up the track, in an attempt to show that we did not need any assistance, and if the helicopter was searching for someone, we weren’t it. As the chopper passed us again, we looked up one final time at it, before it returned to its original origin from over the flanks of the pony track, and finally out of sight and sound from us. Perhaps it was on a training mission, or simply just looking at the wonderful views of the cliffs of the north face we were just about to get closer too.
Since leaving the higher car park which marks the transition from forest to open moorland, we had not seen other soul. Having the path to ourselves meant we could hear each sound, the clearest of them being the impact of trekking poles onto the rocks beneath the small layer of snow as we picked a path through frozen puddles and rocky areas. The newly formed layer of ice wasn’t strong enough to hold my weight, and each passing footstep broke the temporary crust of ice with a short, sharp crack, sinking my boot into the shallow depths of water beneath.
Despite being told the hut was in visible distance, I was still struggling to pick it out among the rocks. Not having seen the hut close up previously, and assuming it was built from the local materials of grey granite rock, picking it out among the many other grey granite rocks wasn’t actually that easy. I could, however, make out a couple of solo climbers, and a small group of about four people, gently descending from the CMD arête towards where I knew the roughly hut was. The black outlines of the climbers were all silhouetted against the white snow behind them. It was only when they passed behind a non natural object I hadn’t noticed before, I finally saw the hut.
The object I had spotted happened to be the medium sized wind turbine used to generate a basic supply of electrical power to the hut. The rotors of the turbine were rattling and whirring away, despite there being little in the way of wind around us. Beneath the turbine stood the hut, and our lunchtime destination. It was much smaller than I expected. About six months before, having visited a 60 capacity mountain hut for the first time in the Swiss Alps, I had assumed that even the largest and arguably the most well known hut in Scotland was be a similar sized affair. What was in front of me was a simple, functional but small stone building with a snow covered corrugated steel roof, and probably a very welcome sight to many climbers after a cold day on the rocks.
The CIC hut was built in 1929 by the parents of Charles Inglis Clark (hence the name) following his premature death on the battlefields of WWI. It sleeps 24 people in basic berths for the bargin sum of £15 per night. It’s self catering, with no luxuries, of course – but then why would you need any with what is on your doorstep?
We hopped around to the far side of the hut, which enabled us to get a full panorama of the cliffs of the north face. They were magical. A stunning kaleidoscope of winter colours, with hues of purple and turquoise blue intertwining with the whites of the snow and ice, and the blacks and greys of the mountain. There were no features, but in so many ways there were. The jagged edges of the famous Tower Ridge were directly ahead of us – arguably the nearest to Alpine characteristics you’ll find in the UK – a challenging scramble/rock climb up to the summit I have to admit I have yet to actually try; my legs favouring hillwalking and basic scrambles coupled with some naivety with ropes preventing this so far, although I’m very keen to try at some point.
We could see the cornices hanging over the summit plateau, on the verge of falling away down into gullies below – an obvious reminder of the avalanche danger in even these seemingly good winter conditions.
After sheltering from the cold, and enjoying a quick bite to eat and a well earned hot chocolate, it was approaching 3pm. It was mid-December, and darkness would descend within the next sixty minutes. We started to head back down to the car, retracing our footsteps from our ascent, back down the path running parallel to the river. We passed a couple of groups heading up the to hut for the night, ideally situated for an early rise the following morning, Turning to look back at the Ben, we saw the ghostly advances of night met with a spectacular moonrise over the summit of the mountain, and a sight that will stay with me for quite some time.
The almost celestial presence justified its position during our ascent. Mountains are magical places, clearly and rationally of this world; sculpted by time, ice and fire, but yet holding emotional characteristics beyond these thoughts. Like many others, I am drawn to these places; for solitude, for relaxation, for excitement or simply just for wonder. What Ben Nevis lacks in height, it certainly makes up for in character – the north face certainly has plenty of that.