Torridon has a unique landscape of sandstone monoliths topped by quartzite, reaching high into the clouds above a rough and desolate moor of bog and lochans. Of all the mountains here Liathach is possibly the most impressive and its traverse is up there with the best the country has to offer. I was fortunate to get the chance to join Sandy and Bryan up there yesterday to complete the traverse and in so doing tick a couple more Munros off the list.
Like the Aonach Eagach in Glen Coe, Liathach starts off with an unrelenting climb from near sea level to Munro height in a very short horizontal distance. Thankfully the path has seen some serious work in recent years and the climb is much helped by the steps. Reaching the ridge is a jaw dropping moment as the view down the other side is suddenly seen. Traversing the ridge from east to west allows the scrambling to build as you make progress. The first Munro, Spidean a'Coire Leith, is quite simple apart from the quartz blocks that require clambering over rather than scrambling. A descent off it's flank quickly got us to the main event, the Fasarianan Pinnacles.
Don't bother with the traverse path on the Glen Torridon side - it has some seriously exposed steps itself and the scrambling on rough sandstone is a delight on the ridge. It is very airy but never too hard although a strong gust of wind at the wrong moment could be unfortunate. After the last pinnacle a comfortable grassy path takes you up to the second Munro and more amazing views. Unfortunately we didn't see these views as the cloud had come down and the rain was starting so we dived down the unrelentingly steep path down to the glen. At least the path at this end has also seen a lot of work done to it!
Well done Bryan and Sandy, brilliant job. Good luck with the remaining few Munros!
Charlie got his (very good) GCSE results today and this was just the start of a great day. Charlie, his brother Luke and I climbed a nice selection of classic Poldubh rock climbs on their first day of climbing on real rock. They have both done a bit of climbing indoors and are very active and sporty so we just got stuck in straight away.
We started up Pinnacle Ridge (with its crampon scratches) before climbing Three Pines, Flying Dutchman with the VS direct finish, Pine Wall and Resurrection. We finished with an abseil off Resurrection using the rope sling that's currently in place for a free hanging finale to the day. Charlie and Luke were great company and top climbers, and the sunshine and brilliant views made it a fantastic day.
During the North Face Survey the botanists and geologists worked hard to discover more about that side of the mountain. The South Side of Ben Nevis has less interesting botany but the geology is just as important to research. So today Roddy Muir of MVE and I spent a day in the sunshine scrambling and climbing around the crags at the top of Coire Eoighain. It's a wonderful place with a remote feel and completely empty even though we were within 500m of the summit.
The walk up by the side of The Waterslide is brutal but effective. From the foot of the coire the crags don't look very impressive but on closer inspection they get steeper and bigger. With sunshine all day we had warm dry rock to enjoy as we climbed and scrambled around looking at the rocks. We found it was all breccia, volcanic debris turned back into solid rock. We didn't find any contacts or lava flows but we can now say we've surveyed the whole of this area of crags for the geological map and model of Ben Nevis that Roddy is building. We also had amazing views all day over the Mamores and all the way to Ben Oss and Beinn Cruachain with the best view of Steall ever.
There were some really cool cloud shapes above Heather and me today. A brisk wind was bouncing the clouds over the tops of the mountains, making waves in the clouds. Thankfully the rain held off until we had just about finished our refresher training of Summer Mountain Leader navigation.
The standard required for the SML is very high. You need to know your location all the time, in good visibility with the map along, in poor visibility or in darkness with just a map and compass, and you need to navigate fluidly and confidently. Heather and I went to the north shore of Loch Leven to walk up from Callert House. We went over Tom Meadhoin and Doire Ban interpreting contours, timing, pacing, following compass bearings and leading each other to unknown points. These are really nice wee hills with amazing views that are good for this kind of training. Good luck on your assessment Heather!
If you want to do the Summer Mountain Leader award we have a training course at the end of September and start of October. Full details are on our Summer Mountain Leader page.
Now the kids have gone back to school (in Scotland at least) the sun is shining again and the rock is dry. Today I was climbing with Dan and Claire from the US, on a wee tour of Scotland and doing plenty of activities on the way. It was biking yesterday, it's going to be sea kayaking tomorrow and today was rock climbing. If you could only do one rock climb ever again I can't think of a better climb than Agag's Groove on Buachaille Etive Mor in dry and clear weather like we had today.
The rock here is dry apart from a couple of pockets that hold the water a bit longer. Don't expect the same everywhere though - the big climbs on Ben Nevis such as The Long Climb will still be really quite wet. There were lots of other people out climbing Curved Ridge and a team on Engineers Crack. Back down at Lagangarbh there were people from several nations enjoying the hot sunshine and the amazing setting of Glen Coe. It was a fantastic day and I was lucky to spend it on such a great climb and in great company too. Scotland at its best!
Three years of surveying the North Face of Ben Nevis, one week each year, has now been completed. Eight guides, four botanists, one geologist, two John Muir Trust staff, four trainee volunteer rangers, two Nevis Landscape Partnership staff, one base camp manager and several volunteers were all dispatched to the last few areas of the 300 hectare site, a site of special scientific interest on account of the rare plants and geology. So, was it all worth it?
Several years ago the existence of nationally rare mouse ears and saxifrages at the top of Number Four Gully was well known but it seemed that this was the only location they could be found. If so, their survival on Ben Nevis was at risk and the possibility of translocating plants was seriously considered. Before doing anything though, it was worth getting a better understanding of the distribution of these plants by reaching the less accessible places with the use of guides. The first thought was to get a guide and a botanist together for a few days to see what turned up. However Cathy Mayne of Scottish Natural Heritage and Tristan Semple of Nevis Landscape Partnership could see the value of going bigger, much bigger! It was a risk because we might have found nothing but it seems to have paid off very well.
This year we found more locations for Highland Saxifrage and Arctic and Starwort Mouse Ears, as we have done in the last two years. We also found a new location of Tufted Saxifrage and Alpine Saxifrage. Since Alpine Saxifrage had not been recorded on Ben Nevis before we started, finding a small colony of these plants this year was a brilliant result and the Tufted Saxifrage is just as good.
In a recent publication, Wavy Meadow Grass (Poa Flexuosa) is described as being incredibly rare with its biggest population found on Ben Nevis, about 300 plants. During this survey we found two new locations and this year we counted 550 plants in one of them. On Ben Nevis, Wavy Meadow Grass is doing really quite well compared with the rest of the UK.
We also have a huge set of geological data that will be put into a really cool 3D image showing all the rocks above and below the surface, and a coherent model of how the rocks of Ben Nevis came to be how they are (it's a roof pendant by the way, if you know what that is).
Does any of this matter? Why did we spend so much time and effort counting little flowers and grasses that few people recognise anyway?
Well, there are very good reasons why we should maintain our mountains in good condition for the sake of biodiversity and to study it for the impact of global warming. However, the more immediate benefit is simply knowing just how special climbing on Ben Nevis is. It's quite well understood that, at its best, climbing on Ben Nevis is second to none. It stands amongst the best mountaineering experiences available on the world stage. And now we know it is that little bit more special because as you walk in to Coire na Ciste we will know that beneath our boots is the nations largest area of Wavy Meadow Grass, a very rare species of grass; as we climb Green Gully, ice axes biting into the plastic snow-ice, remember that super rare species of flowers grow underneath called Arctic Mouse Ear, Alpine Speedwell and Highland Saxifrage; as you climb The Great Chimney, first climbed by Marshall and Smith in that legendary week of climbing in 1960, remember that it is home to a colony of Alpine Saxifrage and Tufted Saxifrage on account of the slight difference in geology that formed the chimney in the first place.
Our enjoyment of climbing on Ben Nevis is far more than just the climbing. After all, there are other places we could climb that are far easier to get to. If it was just about the climbing, we would all climb indoors. But it's not just about the climbing, it's much more about the place, its beauty, its nature and the challenge presented by the environment. The more we know about it and how special a place it is, the better the experience will be of climbing there.
Huge thanks go to Cathy Mayne of SNH, Donald King, Al Halewood, Scott Kirkhope, Dave Anderson, Will Rowland, Dave Buckett, Connor Holdsworth and Andy Hague. It's been a pleasure to work with Roddy Muir of Midland Valley, Ian Strachan, Dan Watson of NTS and Matt Harding the botanists, Ali Austin and Blair Fyffe of JMT, and James Cooper who worked all week just for fun. It would not have been possible without Lewis Pate, Susan Nicol, Beccy Cantle, Ciaran Tangney, Peter Struthers and Hannah Bathgate of Nevis Landscape Partnership.
It's been a great demonstration of the benefits of partnership working and an absolute blast!
The final week of surveying has started on the three year project of botanical and geological surveying of the North Face of Ben Nevis for SNH and Nevis Landscape Partnership. Last week we had a couple of training days during which we also found a new area of Wavy Meadow Grass, bigger than either of the two previously known locations with five hundred clumps. Since the North Face is a SSSI and these nationally rare plants grow in very few places in the country, this is a very important find. It also shows that the vascular assemblage on Ben Nevis is in favourable condition (that means the flowers are doing OK). We've also updated the geological model of Ben Nevis by recording a huge amount of data and some very fancy modelling from Midland Valley Exploration.
Today I abseiled down Green Gully. This is a very popular winter climb that I have enjoyed climbing many times. I don't know of anyone that has descended it in Summer! It is wet, loose and full of rare plants including Arctic Mouse Ear, Starwort Mouse Ear, Alpine speedwell, Highland Saxifrage and Alpine Meadow Grass. Actually much of this extends across the terrace running towards Number Three Gully Buttress and over the bright green patch of moss that gives Green Gully it's name.
Other teams went up NE Buttress and down Tower Gully, up and down Observatory Gully and the bowl underneath Orion Face and Zero Gully. The best find today was a new location for Tufted Saxifrage which I hope to visit tomorrow. The weather looks like it will be relatively kind to us for a couple more days but the end of the week might be a bit wet!
Extensive, exploratory geological and botanical surveying will once again be taking place on Ben Nevis next week; hill walkers, climbers and runners are being urged to avoid certain areas on the North Face from Monday 8th to Friday 12th of August. Ben Nevis North Face is a very big place and we have a relatively small team but we have been successful in visiting many places over the last two years. This year, the last of the current survey, we aim to reach the remaining areas.
This is the third and final year of Nevis Landscape Partnership’s ambitious project to create a comprehensive geological and botanical map of our highest mountain. Working with geology experts from Midland Valley and using innovative digital mapping has made surveying previously thought inaccessible areas a reality. The use of mountain guides to set up rigging and big abseils into dark, previously unexplored nooks and crannies has also benefited the British Society of Botany and lead to multiple new population discoveries in years one and two.
The main areas the team will be focusing on this year will be Observatory Gully, Orion Face and Little Brenva Face; due to the risk of rockfall the team has asked the general public to avoid these areas. The team will be using fixed rope anchors along the edge of the summit plateau and for the safety of those working below they ask that all ropes and anchor points are avoided. The whole North Face is likely to be scattered with scientists, mountain guides and Nevis Trainee Rangers who will be assisting throughout the week. Normal access to and from Ben Nevis’ summit via the mountain track will not be affected nor will access to The CIC Hut via Torlundy. If you want to climb Obervatory Ridge or NE Buttress please do so but it would worth speaking with us first at the CIC Hut beforehand so we know what your plans are. Thank you.
Year one was captured in Dave MacLeod’s fantastic film “The Hidden Side” which Nevis Landscape Partnership financed as part of a separate project to share this wonderfully diverse, interesting project with the general public. You can take a look over on their Vimeo channel, reports on the first two phases of the project can be found on Nevis Landscape Partnership’s website along with numerous articles regarding years one & two.
Hill running has never seemed like a good idea to me. Running down hill must have so much impact on knees and ankles that it must bring on the inevitable sore knees that much quicker. Going up hill is great and really good training. The idea of running along ridges really appeals, moving along the tops of the mountains fluidly and quickly, without being weighed down by a rucksack of this-and-that just in case, or climbing gear to be used standing on ledges most of the time. It's just the rapid wearing away of cartilage that must come with running down hill or brought on by repetitive moves on unforgiving surfaces that puts me off.
However, my wonderful wife Louise has set herself the target of running the Ben Nevis race in September and I have got caught up in some of the training. It's been quite fun!
Last week we ran up Ben Nevis. This was the first time for Louise on the summit in the summer and the first time I had run up and down just for the sake of the running. In the race you do not stick to the Pony Track. In fact there is almost no restriction on what route you take apart from the start/finish point and the summit. So there is much to learn about the various short cuts and cut-offs that work best for you. Finding them in the mist (or even in clear weather) can be tricky too. You can't just follow the person in front. So Louise and I went to check out the best route.
We ran up and down from Claggan in just over three hours which I was very happy with for a training/recce run. Louise ran it again today with another friend and got a view from the top. It was a rare dry day in a summer that has been wet most days. The mountain crags are pretty wet but we have had odd dry days to enjoy some cragging in the glens and the classic ridges of Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. In the damp weather running is a great way to enjoy the mountains and I could be tempted to do more. I wonder what my race time would be if I ever really went for it.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.