This was by no mean the toughest hike I’ve done, but I was extremely apprehensive to climb Ben Nevis by the CMD Arete in February. Ben Nevis was always described to me as a dangerous mountain to climb due the unpredictable Scottish weather conditions. As a matter of fact, a man had lost his life on the CMD not even a week before our trip to Fort William, which made the headlines of local news.
I had a couple of friends who had had their first and rather rough mountaineering experience on A Ghlas Bheinn a few weeks back, and they were pretty reluctant to the idea of climbing Ben Nevis. I knew that they wanted to join the Strathclyde mountaineers and I to Ben Nevis, but they were really worried as to their strength and skills, which was completely understandable given the insane physical struggle that A Ghlas Bheinn had been for them. I promised them that if they joined, I would take personal responsibility for their safety, and I would plan several backup plans in case we would have to abort our climb. You can be assured that with me having to take care of myself and two others, I prepared myself like I was going to the Himalayas. I studied each inch of the OS Survey map and pretty much did a mental ascent of Ben Nevis in my head multiple times. I drew several backup routes that would allow us to make it safe back to the assembly point down the mountain if we had to forget about reaching the summit. In fact, I was expecting that we wouldn’t push it to the summit because I knew how my friends had really suffered on A Ghlas Bheinn. I just wanted to enjoy the mountain trip with them and adapt it to their level. Now, let me tell you what actually happened: we walked for more than 12 miles with a total elevation of roughly 5,200 feet.
On a Friday night, we all gathered on campus, In Glasgow, Scotland. We were a group of nine or ten people, and had rented a minivan to drive up North, to a small village called Spean Bridge. We arrived there at night and were delighted to find that we were going to spend the weekend at a nice lodge that even had a sauna!
We woke up pretty early in the morning and got ready for the day. If I recall, we started our walk near Torlundy, a place close to Fort William, and walked through the Leanachan Forest for a little while. It was wet and cloudy. We walked on a muddy road which eventually became a really small path. From there, we crossed the swampy terrain that separated the forest from Carn Beag Dearg – the northernmost mountain of the CMD ridge. As we started climbing the mountain slope that was getting increasingly steep, I tried to keep my friends motivated and act like this whole trip was no big deal. I thought it would make them feel safe. We had a nice group and we were progressing pretty fast. The higher we were getting, the more incredible the view beneath us was. We could see all the way from the Easternmost part of Loch Eil, to Sgurr Thuilm, to Gulvain, to Loch Lochy and even probably Meal na Teanga. Although it was quite cloudy, God sent us its greeting with a small but distinct rainbow.
We were getting pretty high now. As I was walking, I was trying to distinguish the north face of Ben Nevis, but the whole mountain was hidden by an impenetrable fog. There was a heavy silence which was only broken by the sound of our steps. Two thousand feet high, the snow was now covering the ground. We passed Carn Beag Dearg [3,264] and took a short break on top of Carn Dearg Meadhonach [3,868 ft]. From there, we followed the ridge up to Carn Mor Dear [4,002 ft] where we stopped to equip ourselves.
The first section of the ridge was amazing. We walked in the clouds with a few sunny spells from time to time. There was a pretty heavy layer of snow near the edge of the cliff and I could feel the huge drop on the other side. The Sun was filtering through the clouds, and I could see how it was already high in the sky. I was following my friend whose outline was right in the middle of the solar circle. It looked like he was shining golden light.
On top of Carn Mor Dearg, with our crampons on, we were now ready to face the second and hardest section of the ridge; the section that made the CMD so famous. We couldn’t see it yet because of the clouds, and we had no idea what we were getting ready for, until, all of a sudden, the drape of clouds disappeared and the CMD arete and Ben Nevis revealed themselves. Ben Nevis was massive and standing tall on our right. Its two thousand something feet high Northeast buttress made it seem unmerciful and deadly. In front of us, and in comparison with the imposing mass of Ben Nevis, the CMD Arete looked ridiculously narrow. The breathtakingly steep drops on each of its sides made it look like a jungle bridge. My friend turned back, looked at me, and said: “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into.”
We had to climb down the mountain a little bit to get to the arete. The cold wind was whipping our faces. We looked clumsy because we had to walk on a snowy and at the same time rocky terrain with our crampons. I was behind the others and was making sure we were all going to make it all right. When we were all on the arete, the clouds came back out of nowhere and threw us in a gloomy, silent and mysterious world of black and white. We progressed slowly but steadily. The clouds made the arete seem like a corridor leading to another dimension. Thank God, the arete was by no mean as narrow as the insane Eanach Eagach. It was wide enough to stay safe without necessitating additional equipment or advanced skills, although some sections required great focus to avoid a slippery fall down the mountain.
My way through this section, although not so physically challenging for me, was a really deep spiritual experience. At some point, I decided to let the other people disappear in the clouds, and sat in the snow. I stayed there for maybe a couple of minutes. The snowflakes were whipping my face. I stood up, looked around me and realized that I was all alone. The only things I could hear were my breathing, the sound of the wind, and the snowflakes hitting my jacket. I couldn’t see anything but where I was coming from, on my left, and where I had to go, on my right. My visibility was limited and I had no idea how long I would have to walk to the next landmark.
I walked alone for a few minutes until I caught up with the rest of the group. The wind was blowing stronger now. We had to make our way through a couple of exposed crags and finally reached a landmark which I recognized from my first ascent of Ben Nevis the previous summer: the abseiling sign at the bottom of Ben Nevis’ Southeast face. I knew that from now on, it would be the final ascent before the top of the United Kingdom. A thing I had forgotten though, is how long this section is. We battled, knee deep in snow, to conquer the mountain. I told my friends to cut straight to the top and under no circumstance go to the right (East), because someone had warned me about how easy it was to fall from the East buttress when it’s foggy.
We finally reached the top of Nevis. There was a good layer of snow up there. I had forgotten how flat the top was. We were still in the clouds and I couldn’t really figure out where the rescue shelter was. I took my compass to check that I wasn’t running straight towards the cliffs, and I finally distinguished the shelter in the distance. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t sunny, but I knew that it wasn’t often the case up there. To my surprise, though, the clouds went away and we had a good 10 minutes of pure sun and an incredible view over the Mamores and the North. I was running all over the place to take pictures and appreciate the moment. My two friends, who were initially hesitant to come and thought they would never make it, were cheering on top of the highest mountain of the United Kingdom. Can you believe that it was their second mountaineering experience ever?
Well, we were all cheering, until we came down to Earth and realized that the way up was only 50% of the route. I know going downhill can be really hard for a lot of people, but I find it pretty cool and I always try to go as fast as I can, although I almost broke a leg countless times. On the way down, our group split into smaller groups. We were now four people. We were following the tourist path that goes down to Fort William. I was kind of bored of this route so I decided to cut straight in the scree down to Lochan an t-Suidhe. I waited my friends. When they arrived, we kept walking back to our assembly point in Torlundy. The sun was going down, and we witnessed an amazing sunset while walking down to the forest.
Back to the lodge, we celebrated the evening with a great meal, followed by a party in the sauna. Good memories.
PS: I did this trip back in February 2011. I take the opportunity to write down this report for the three year anniversary :)