After a long and remarkable life, Hamish MacInnes died on Sunday at the age of 90. We owe a huge amount of our enjoyment of mountaineering to Hamish. His contribution to mountain culture was immense, his work on mountain rescue was groundbreaking, his personal climbing was cutting edge and his development of climbing techniques made profound changes to how we go climbing. It's no exaggeration to say that the modern ice climbing technique of using two ice axes and steeply inclined picks was developed in Lochaber and Hamish MacInnes was at the forefront of this. His “Terrordactyl” ice axes led the way in metal shafted ice axes with inclined picks. We still use this technique today.
Way back in 1957, Hamish made the first ascent of Zero Gully on Ben Nevis. In the years following his ascent, several others tried the climb and there were some fatal accidents, often caused by wooden shafted ice axes breaking in a fall. Hamish was driven to engineer the first metal shafted ice axes, which he worked on in his workshop in Glencoe.
In the winter of 1960 Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith completed the most significant week of climbing ever achieved in Scotland. Orion Direct, Smith's Route, Minus Two Gully and the first single day and free ascent of Point Five Gully were amongst the seven climbs they completed on consecutive days. All of this was achieved with a single ice axe each and crampons with no front points.
Ten years later in 1970 Yvon Chouinard made a brief visit which was to trigger a change that would revolutionise winter climbing. Using prototype curved ice hammers he made some very fast ascents demonstrating how to climb ice by direct aid, hanging off the pick itself embedded in the ice. Comparing techniques with Hamish MacInnes, John Cunningham and others, modern ice climbing was born.
That year Hamish MacInnes developed "The Terrordactyl", a short, all metal ice tool with a steeply dropped pick. The "Terror" and Chouinard's ice hammer dominated the forefront of international ice climbing for several years. Eventually these two designs were combined to create the banana pick which is still the basis for modern ice tool design. Fifty years later, we are still using the same techniques and style of picks.
Hamish had a hand in setting up Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, Search and Rescue Dogs Association and Scottish Avalanche Information Service. His rescue stretchers are still the favourite design of many teams in the UK. He ran the Glencoe School of Winter Climbing, making many first ascents of climbs in doing so.
We owe a lot to Hamish. His legacy will be very long lived.
In 2020 Abacus Mountain Guides turned 20 years old, so to celebrate we headed down to Polldubh in Glen Nevis. Not to go climbing, but to plant trees!! Today we planted 20 beautiful little Scots Pines around the Polldubh crags as our way of giving something back to this spectacular environment that we use every day to make a living, as well as being a little "Happy Birthday to Abacus!"
The trees we planted are part of Nevis Landscape Partnership's Future Forests Project which began with the pine cones being collected from mature Scots Pines growing just across the river on the opposite side of Glen Nevis. Those old trees are a remnant of the Caledonian Pine forest which once covered large parts of the Highlands, but for various reasons there are now only small pockets left. The pine trees struggle to regenerate due to grazing pressure, predominantly from red and roe deer, so they need to be protected if they are going to grow successfully.
Fortunately for our birthday trees they are safe inside various exclosures where no deer or sheep will be able to nibble them, and hopefully in a few decades time there will be plenty of big, strong pine trees on the slopes of Glen Nevis which are regenerating and continuing the growth of the forest themselves.
The environment needs our help now more than ever, and at Abacus we believe that we should be giving something back to the mountains and glens that provide so much for us. This is why we will continue with our tree planting and make it a yearly event so we can see healthy, living habitats full of biodiversity continuing to grow.
Back in July we wrote about how hard it is to climb Ben Nevis in the summer (which you can read here). With winter rapidly approaching, how about climbing the UK's highest mountain while it is coated in snow and ice? There are many mountaineering and climbing routes on Ben Nevis, but only one straightforward route, the mountain track, and that is the one we are talking about. The mountain usually sees it's first snowfall in September and it can be in winter condition all the way through to May. So don't be fooled by a warm, sunny April day down in Fort William, the top of the mountains could still be experiencing serious winter weather!
Can you climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Yes, of course. However, you need to know exactly what you will be getting into and be well prepared, both in terms of the kit you carry and the skills you will need to look after yourself. Climbing Ben Nevis in the winter months is definitely not for everyone. It can be a long and tiring day, requiring a good level of fitness, and the weather conditions can be incredibly tough, with strong winds and poor to zero visibility on the upper parts of the mountain being quite likely. But if you get it right, successfully reaching the summit and getting safely back down brings a huge sense of achievement.
How hard is it to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
This can vary massively from day to day, and it depends on the the snow conditions underfoot and what the weather is doing at the time. The bottom half of the track is often clear of snow, with the snow line usually sitting at about 600m. From this point you should expect to be on snow all the way to the summit and back down. After a fresh dump of snow it will be very soft, and if there is a lot of it you will be doing a serious amount of wading. This is incredibly tiring and if you are with friends make sure you take turns at the front so it is not the same person doing all the trail breaking! If the snow has been through some freeze-thaw cycles (meaning the temperature has risen allowing the snow to go soggy, then the temperature drops again, freezing the soft soggy snow into snow-ice) it will be very hard and icy, so the walking will likely be easier but crampons and an ice axe will be essential.
Once on the snow you need to be comfortable using your boots to kick steps if it is just small areas of hard snow, or confident walking in crampons on relatively steep ground. Make sure your crampons are correctly fitted to your boots before you set off - the side of a mountain in 40+ mph winds and swirling snow is not the place to be adjusting them. Crampons have a habit of catching on everything - rocks, trousers, your other crampon, you name it - so make sure you practice walking in them on easier ground first. You should also have your ice axe, and know what to do with it. It can be used to provide support while you walk and also to stop a trip or slip from having dire consequences.
A clear summit on Ben Nevis is a rare thing so expect cloud, and in the winter that means your navigation needs to be on point. In summer there is a path to follow but in winter this gets completely buried in snow, and there can be little to no difference between the ground and sky. You need to know how to take a bearing from your map, and then be able to follow it accurately on varying terrain. Once on the huge and featureless summit plateau there are cairns to aid navigation but it is common to not be able to see from one cairn to the next, or in heavy snow winters some of them get completely buried. You will still need to follow a bearing on your compass and know exactly when to make the left turn toward the summit. When you reach the summit remember that you're only half way there and you will then need to do everything in reverse, so stay switched on all the way down.
How long does it take to walk up and down Ben Nevis in winter?
This depends on a number of factors but on average it takes between seven and nine hours to climb Ben Nevis in winter. If you are fit and experienced, and you get good snow conditions you could be quicker, but you should plan to be out for an entire day. With a lot of fresh snow it could take upwards of 10 hours, and remember that in December and early January there is less than seven hours of daylight.
Do I need crampons for Ben Nevis?
If you are climbing Ben Nevis between November and early May then you should plan to take crampons and a single mountaineering ice axe. Early in the winter season the snow cover will be thin and it will come and go, but it doesn't take long for the snow to build up and for crampons and an axe to become essential. You don't know if the snow will be hard and icy until you are up there, by which pioint it is too late to go back and get them! They need to be real crampons rather than microspikes, which are next to useless on hard, icy snow. Your crampons need to be fitted to winter boots, either B2 or B3 rated. Winter boots are much stiffer than summer boots which means you get a lot more support, you can use the edge of the sole to kick steps in the snow and your crampons will stay on. Soft summer boots bend inside crampons and the crampons simply fall off. Another essential piece of kit is a pair of goggles. When the snow is being blown into your face and you are trying to walk on your bearing you will find goggles absolutely vital. See the video below for a run down of essential winter kit and our full Ben Nevis in Winter Kit List is here.
Is there snow on Ben Nevis all year round?
Yes and no. Some of the deep gullies on the North Face can hold snow all year round but on the western side of the mountain where the mountain track is, this is not the case. The first snow usually falls in September with winter kit normally required between November and early May. The top of Ben Nevis is often hidden in cloud so you could look at the first 1000 metres and think there is no snow without realising that the top 300 metres is still very wintry. Do your research and make sure you go prepared.
Is it dangerous to climb Ben Nevis in winter?
Any mountaineering activity has it's risks but it is possible to minimise these risks and have a fantastic day in the Scottish mountains:
Moving up to the next grade can feel like a daunting prospect, or sometimes an impossible leap. Much of the time the barrier is in our heads but there are also some practical steps you can take to reach the next level in your winter climbing. Here are some practical things you can do to help.
To get used to placing protection on harder climbs and in more difficult positions, when you are climbing at your current grade place protection in tricky places. You know you can climb at this grade and you can place protection in comfortable places. As well as this, stop on the steeper, trickier sections and place protection. Don’t power through the crux; instead stop half way through it and place an ice screw or a nut. This will give you practice in placing protection in more difficult places which is what it will feel like on the harder climb. Make sure you are relaxed and slick at placing the protection. If it does not work you can just carry on climbing like you would have done anyway.
In fact, even if you don’t place protection, stopping half way through the tricky section of your current grade is a good idea. Instead of powering through, rushing through the crux to easier ground above, slow down, stop and admire the view. You need confidence in what you are doing and in the position you are in. If you are rushing though the crux you are not ready to move up a grade. If you are relaxed and confident enough to stop and soak up the atmosphere, to admire the view, you are ready to try a harder climb.
You need to trust your protection and belay anchors. You might even need to do a hanging belay on the next grade of climb. So, practice and get confident in your anchors by leaning out on your anchors when you are belaying your buddy. This is a good idea anyway. You do not want any slack rope between you and your anchors if you are belaying off your harness so that there is no chance of a shock load on your anchors if your buddy falls off. So, kick out a nice ledge, stand tall and lean back on your anchors with confidence.
Do your research. Winter climbs come in all shapes and sizes, styles and characters. Choose one that matches your strengths, whether it is ice, mixed or snowed up rock. Find out what it takes to be in optimum condition, where the pitches go, where to belay and where the crux is. Choose a popular climb which is well known, not an esoteric adventure that has only seen one ascent. Make sure it is well known so you can get the information you need, and so you know the grade is accurate. You will also be able find out when it has been climbed recently which is quite a reassurance. Making the first ascent of an ice climb each winter is certainly more nerve-wracking than climbing it after many recent ascents.
Having said this, it can be tricky working out what kind of route each one is and therefore what the optimum conditions are. The information is much more available these days though, and don’t be afraid to ask around.
Climb with climbers who are better than you. You will find it easier to move up a grade if you have seconded a few climbs at that grade and you know what it feels like. In fact, if you can get a buddy to lead you up a climb that you want to lead yourself you will have much more chance of success. Much of the difficulty in moving up a grade is psychological so take away the concerns over route finding, where to belay, what kind of protection to take with you as well as the climbing itself by climbing it with a stronger climbing buddy. Even though leading a route you have seconded makes it much easier to lead, you will still have the confidence of having lead at that grade which will carry you forward to your first onsight lead of that grade.
Serve an apprenticeship and move through the grades steadily. If you climb one grade IV route you are not automatically ready to climb a grade V. Even if you find the grade IV straight forward you should climb several more at that grade before moving up the grade. Experience is earned through spending time on lots of climbs in different locations, on different days and in different conditions. You learn how to deal with many, many different situations and these help you cope with new situations that you will undoubtedly face.
“There is more to ice climbing than climbing ice”. In fact, the techniques of winter climbing are only a small part of climbing winter routes. Be prepared to build up a huge bank of experience by climbing lots and lots of routes. You will learn all sorts of tricks from other climbers, about dealing with the harsh weather, about how the weather affects the climbing conditions, about avalanche safety and navigation, and about how to cope with all the little (and some major) things that don’t go completely right every time!
Sort your system so that you stay warm and dry. We all have different preferences of gloves and clothes but a system that works well for you is essential. Any fool can be cold, hungry and dehydrated but all these will reduce your performance. Play around with different gloves and carry spares for when you get wet. Use a belay jacket, one between the two of you if you are swinging leads. A jacket that fits over your helmet, that does not pull out from under your harness and that does not hang over your harness covering up your gear makes a huge difference to your climbing.
Find food that is easy to eat on a belay ledge and something to drink in something you can drink from easily. If you can arrive at the foot of the crux pitch feeling warm, dry and well fed you will be in a much better position to climb it. The concept of marginal gains really makes sense to me in winter climbing. Making sure your zips are done up really can help you climb the next grade!
As the first snow starts to fall, we are just about to start five months of winter climbing in Scotland. Excitement levels are reaching the max and we are super keen to jump in. The question is, what do you climb first? When should you think about doing those super classic ice climbs? What’s the best climb at each point in the winter?
December - Curved Ridge, Buachaille Etive Mor, Glen Coe
The first winter climb of the season always feels like a real test. It takes a climb or two to work through the faff factor of fumbling with gloves on, to remind yourself which way up your crampons go, that you need to pee before you put your harness on and that you need to eat constantly. When you throw in short days, a thin cover of fresh, useless snow and a chance the ground is not yet well frozen, it’s not surprising that it feels tough to get going.
So, try Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor as a wee warm up climb. It’s a beautiful route at grade II or III depending on the conditions on the day with some very nice climbing. It’s a long route so you will get lots of time in your crampons but it is a relatively short day. The walk in is less than an hour and the climb goes all the way to the summit of Stob Dearg with a short enough walk down Coire na Tullach at the end of the day.
The climbing is always interesting, varied and on solid rock with plenty of spikes for protection. Much of it can be climbed like an Alpine ridge by shortening the rope and moving together. The crux sections are quite easily seen and it’s worth throwing in a couple of pitches on these.
January - Number Three Gully Buttress, Ben Nevis
In January we hope to see a reasonable cover of snow building up and some thaw freeze cycles to consolidate the snow into solid neve. The days are still short though and January can be pretty stormy with lots of fresh snowfall so you’ve got be on your toes.
At grade III, Number Three Gully Buttress has a lot of varied climbing in a fantastic position. Right at the top of Coire na Ciste on Ben Nevis there is a steep slope to get to the start of it which will test your fitness and avalanche awareness too. The first pitch is on ice to a reasonable rock anchor, followed by a few pitches on snow leading up and right. Finding good belay points on this can be tricky but you can also go more directly up and right if you are feeling adventurous. Follow your nose up some grooves and corners and you will find continuous grade III climbing that leads directly to the crux rock step.
The crux is a wee rock step that lands you on an exposed shelf, very high above the coire floor. The rightward trending line continues in an ever more spectacular position with Number Three Gully tucked a long way down under your feet.
February - Gemini, Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis
When the snow has built up and the January storms have created the best ice and mixed conditions, Gemini can be one of the best climbs on Ben Nevis. It is grade VI and combines steep cascade style ice at the start with icy mixed climbing at the end. It sits on the right side of Carn Dearg Buttress on Ben Nevis, at quite a modest altitude so conditions do need to be excellent for this climb to be formed.
There is no warm up on Gemini! The first pitch is a long icy groove with some very steep climbing on hard ice. A more reasonable second pitch lands you at the foot of the obvious and very impressive smear of cascade ice halfway up the climb. If this is fully formed it can be taken from its foot, giving another long, steep and this time very exposed pitch. If it is thin at the base, a traverse in from the right side is quite feasible but certainly no easier.
Mixed pitches of rock, turf and ice then lead up to the twin grooves that give the climb its name. Decide which of these looks best and go for it. This is the last of the hard climbing but getting up to the traverse shelf on Carn Dearg Buttress that takes you to Ledge Route is still quite exciting.
March - Point Five Gully, Ben Nevis
The most famous ice climb in Scotland (and possibly in the world) is reliable, popular and brilliant. It is a big funnel that catches a lot of snow and channels all the dribbles of water that run down it in the thaws. This is a great combination to help build the ice quickly at the start of the winter but it is also the perfect combination for pouring spindrift down onto you at the most awkward of moments!
Any of the three hard pitches at the start can form the crux. Before it is fully banked out, the bulge at the top of the first pitch will have to be taken direct, giving you a good few moves of vertical ice. The chimney pitch is always more technical with bridging, balancing and pulling over some steep bulges that sometimes form. The rogue pitch can then be a simple bridging exercise up a nice corner, or it can feel very steep, tenuous and bold. The only way to find out what it’s like is to give it a go.
After these three pitches the angle relents to give three or four pitches of grade II or III climbing to the top. Leaving this climb until March can reduce the chance of poor ice and spindrift. When it is well formed, banked out and when the weather is more settled, Point Five Gully is the ultimate classic climb it is reported to be. Sometimes it is good to be patient.
April - Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis
At the start of the winter Tower Ridge can feel quite hard. When the rocks are not fully covered with snow, or worse when they are covered in verglas, moving up the rocky ridge is slow and laborious. When your rate of progress is slow in the shorter days at the start of the winter there is no surprise when people finish the climb in the dark, or spend a cold night out on the ridge!
So, wait until the spring when the days are long, the snow cover is brilliant and the rock is starting to become exposed again in all the right places for hand holds. The sun gets high enough in April to give an Alpine experience at home in Scotland. Tower Ridge is the ultimate super classic climb that is long, beautiful and has its crux sections right at the top.
When the weather is good and you are moving well after a few months of wearing crampons, Tower Ridge is a delight. Standing on the Great Tower in the sunshine, looking forward to Tower Gap with excitement instead of trepidation makes it a much more fun experience!
October is awesome and annoying in equal measure. The weather is often all over the place, never really dry and warm for rock climbing, but rarely cold enough for much winter climbing. It's the one in between when flexibility and an open mind are pre-requisites, being happy to embrace all forms of climbing as dictated by the conditions. Mountaineering to bouldering, sport to sea cliff trad climbing; go with the flow. Embrace autumn.
When the sun shines, it's gentle warmth warms the bones if climbers and the wings of butterflies. Choose your crag carefully; even clean, south facing rocks dry out slowly. Enjoy a slow breakfast, slip into the routine of the days, take time to appreciate where you are, its sounds and its atmosphere.
The ring crags at Ardnamurchan bounce back the bellows of the stags in full rut. No other noise disturbs their roars other than the chink of our climbing gear and occasional calls to each other. It seems an empty landscape where the passage of time, beyond the daily rhythm of light and dark, is meaningless. Spending time at Ardnamurchan is like pressing the pause button, like stepping off the fairground ride for a few delicious moments, to restore some kind of balance.
Even in the rain, the gabbro at Ardnamurchan is as grippy as anything. The limit to your climbing will be the condition of the skin on your fingers. Go for a wander; it's impossible not to find great rock and brilliant bouldering. Take a rack and a rope too so you can throw in occasional pitches as well. Go with the flow.
Red, yellow, green and orange leaves on the trees are like nature's fireworks while whole mountain sides turn golden brown behind. Lazy bits of mist hang about in corries and spider's webs hold on to crystal lattices made of dew drops.
Sea cliffs can offer refuge from the biting breeze, a little warmer air and dry rock between the weeps. Just below the main road where unknowing drivers pass by, fights with flared cracks are going on with a sense of adventure beyond its modest scale. Down here, it's just us and fifty seals giving us all their attention and climbing critique. Their wierd wails make it clear where the idea of sirens of the sea came from.
Stars over night give way to a weak daybreak but there is no warmth in the sun. Drips on the tent soak cold into the fingers. The sky is blue and the sun shines straight onto the rock but we each wear three layers plus puffer jackets. It is lunchtime before I take off my second pair of trousers. It's not a time to be pushing the grade. Instead we spot lines that look good and enjoy the movement, the sensations, the sounds and the smells.
It's all about movement on rock. There is little difference between bouldering on 2m high rocks and climbing 200m high ridges. It's all climbing. It's all about focusing on what is underneath your finger tips, underneath the tips of your shoes, and nothing else.
The weather changes again and we shift venues again. The west always seems wilder and there is a lot of wild coast on Skye. For most, Skye is all about the Cuillins, but the coast has a wealth of sea cliffs, coves and caves to explore. Prehistoric rocks and fossils, columns and cracks offer outstanding climbing. John and I have a lot of exploring and climbing still to enjoy!
Castle Ridge (Moderate), Ledge Route
Yir (VS 4c,4a)
Volcane (E1 5a,5b)
Up-Pompei (E1 5b,4c)
Pash (Severe 4b)
Sanna Ferry Ann (V.Diff)
Mjollnir (HS 4b)
Solas (HS 4b)
Creag an Amalaidh (Golspie)
Sprockletop (VS 4c)
Giant (VS 4b)
Stepping Out (Severe 4b)
Shocket (Severe 4a)
Coaster (Severe 4b)
Pistachio (Severe 4b)
Sunspot (VS 4c)
Heavy Duty (VS 4b)
Positive Mental Attitude (VS 5a)
Fancy Free (VS 4c)
Bouldering at Castle of Old Wick
Spantastic (HVS 4c,4c)
Lucy in the Sky (HVS 5a)
Shocks and Stares (HS 4b)
Sonamara (VS 4c)
Baywatch (VS 4c)
We are very used to rain dancing here on the west coast of Scotland. Atlantic weather moves in quickly, hits us straight on and changes very rapidly. So, we need to be on our toes to move with the weather and make the most of the dry(er) bits in between the inevitable wet bits. In addition to the normal rain dancing, we currently have to find our way through covid-19 regulations, closed campsites, vans breaking down and any number of other logistical details. Perhaps I should move into logistics, getting the right thing to the right place at the right time.
Like many people this year, David had plans to go on a couple of trips to the Alps which fell through. Thankfully our trip to Skye did go ahead but even this was all a bit last minute in its details as well. Bad weather last weekend was still clearing away in the morning of Monday so we got off to a lazy start for the Cuillin Traverse (11.30am) to avoid a soaking at the start. This worked, the rain had gone and we enjoyed a dry walk in. We didn't get to see very much on th eridge and the rock was wet but we managed to set a very good pace even so. David has done a good amount of Alpine climbing in the past and moving along technical ground with lots of exposure is no problem for him. The addition of super-slippery rock made us focus even more though!
We managed to get along from Sgurr nan Eag (the most southerly Munro on the ridge) to the Inaccessible Pinnacle before 6pm and we decided to stop for the night in Coire Banachdich. It is very important to get a dry night when doing a two day traverse. After a wet bivvy there is little chance of being able to get going and complete the traverse on day two. Thankfully, we only had a couple of fairly light showers and we packed up in the morning in good shape. One other aspect of doing the traverse in late September are the shorter days. Normally, I'll make breakfast at 5am and get away at 6am. It's still dark at 6am at the moment so we were delayed in setting off by an hour.
Inspired by a few more glimpses of the view and of what we were traversing, we maintained a super slick pace over the slippery, slimy rocks. The jump over the bigger gap in the ridge on An Caisteal was particularly memorable after a wee foot slip on the first attempt! Even with a longer than normal second day, wet rock for the entire two days and a later start, David and I made it to Sgurr nan Gillean by 3pm. Brilliant work!
On Wednesday, my van broke down and I got towed back home!
Thursday started wet but was dry during the day. The rock steadily dried out during the day so David and I went to Buachaille Etive Mor to climb D Gully Buttress onto Curved Ridge, Agag's Groove, Crowberry Ridge and Crowberry Tower, and then on to the summit of Stob Dearg. The summit is only 2km from the car paark in a straight line, but we managed a huge amount of brilliant rock climbing to get there. It was of course slightly slimy in th ecracks but over all it was very good climbing. Another few super classic rock climbing stars ticked off.
Good, sunny weather was forecast for the last day of our week of climbig so I was disapointed to hear rain falling on my window at 7am. The forecast was still certain it would be a dry sunny day, but the question was how quickly would the rock dry off? We went to Ardverikie Wall, one of the most delightful places to climb in Scotland. It has a wonderful outlook, facing south it gets all the sunshine there is and it looks out over empty mountains and wild landscape. Amazing quality of rock (mostly granite) and climbing make it one of the best crags around and Ardverikie Wall itself is one of the best climbs ever.
It was a little damp at the start but the seeps and drips soon dried out. We split the first big pitch into two smaller ones and by the second pitch the rock was dry all the way. Quite good going since it only had 4 or 5 hours to dry out. There are substantial weeps at the top but it's quite simple to avoid these. By the time we got back down many of the other routes were dry as well so we climbed the other great Hard Severe route Kubla Khan. Blaeberry Groove (VS) gave us a klast route of very different character - whereas the first two were delicate slabs, this one is steep with wierd, contorted handholds and foot holds. Pinches, jams, lay-aways and finger locks are required; there isn't a single crimp on the climb.
So, a great week of rain dancing and route choice to maximise the sunshine. We got to enjoy some of Scotland's finest rock climbing and mountaineering. Next week, the west coast will be the best place to be as well. Easterly winds will bring rain to the Cairngorms and east coast, leaving us with drier weather. It might be time to find some sea cliffs along the west coast for more rock climbing adventures!
Stopping for a rest can be a dangerous thing to do. It gives you the chance to look around, see where you are and fully appreciate the seriousness of the place. When you are scrambling, focusing on hand and boot placements on the moderate ground, everything is OK. As soon as you stop and look where you are, the sense of place can be overwhelming.
Ledge Route is the modest name for this most outstanding route, a simple Grade II scramble, rising 400m over its 800m length. What sets it out from all other scrambles is where it is, finding a way through the seemingly impenetrable cliffs of the North Face of Ben Nevis, in amongst the finest and grandest of mountains in the UK.
The ridges and gullies, the buttresses and chimneys of the North Face stretch across 2.5km in a straight line but many, many times more than this if you could pull them open, like a concertina, to reveal their full extent. Rising up to 500m high in a continuous sweep of rock directly to the summit, they look impossible to breach. Through this intimidating wall climbs a single, reasonable route. Ledge Route requires nothing more than scrambling skills, a good head for exposure, and the ability to find the route. But, being surrounded by such grandeur and history makes this scramble feel far more impressive than the rock beneath your boots.
Walking up the Allt a’Mhuilinn towards the CIC Hut, the mountaineering hut safely tucked in underneath the North Face, the cliffs unfold above you with more and more complexity and detail. What you thought was a big, impressive cliff at the start turns into an even bigger and more impressive series of cliffs and gullies as you get closer.
The most impressive single chunk of rock, just above the hut, is Carn Dearg Buttress, 200m of vertical rock full of overhangs and deep chimneys. Ledge Route climbs this! Of course, it doesn’t go straight up, this is the reserve of the rock climber. Instead, Ledge Route enters the depths of Number Five Gully to the left of the buttress, and finds a series of ledges up the edge of the buttress. Number Five Gully is often full of snow right into July after funnelling the winter snows to its base. Squeezing between the snow and the rock walls of the gully for 50m reveals the first of the ledges, a terrace leading out right through the edge of the buttress.
Immediately, the exposure is incredible and it is here that you find the crux of the route. A slab of rock, set at a very easy angle, but smooth with few helpful holds and often wet, drops away to what is already a very long way down. It is only 10m long, but it can be enough to stop upward progress. It is here that a rope might give the confidence required to climb the slab, but remember, someone needs to climb it first to put the rope in place.
The ledge continues but soon reaches vertical rock and impossible ground; turn left and climb easily up an open gully to some boulders on a shoulder looking into Number Five Gully. Easier ground now heads back up right to the top of Carn Dearg Buttress, past a bizarre top-heavy tower, to the finest picnic spot on Ben Nevis. While you take a break and catch your breath look between your feet to the path 400 below.
The route now changes character, from the series of zig-zag ledges outflanking the steepest of ground, to a narrow ridge leading all the way to the top. At its narrowest you’ll have your hands on the crest and your feet shuffling along just below, but mostly it is a wide, blocky crest giving you the chance to admire the North Face scenery on both sides.
Over to the left, in Number Five Gully, grow some of the rarest wild flowers found in the UK. Arctic mouse ear and several saxifrages found only on the highest peaks in the country grow here. Keep your eyes open on the first ledge of Ledge Route for globe flowers (giant buttercups!), alpine meadow rue and dwarf cudweed, sibaldia and roseroot. The first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis was made by a botanist and the plants growing here are still being studied.
The crest of Ledge Route leads finally to the summit of Carn Dearg, the northerly top of Ben Nevis. Looking across to the summit and resting before the half hour walk over the plateau, consider the volcanic origin of the rocks. The andesite and rhyolite of the North Face cliffs are what remains of a huge area of volcanic rocks put down 430 million years ago, all of which have eroded away apart from the summit of Ben Nevis.
To top off the day, if you have the legs for it, go around the Carn Mor Dearg Arete and down to the North Face car park, to have the chance to admire the route you came up. There is a great satisfaction in seeing a route after having completed it, reliving the experience and fully appreciating the grandeur of the setting.
Ledge Route, Ben Nevis. A brilliant scramble through the finest of mountain scenery.
How hard is it?
Grade II scramble, often completed without a rope, but with exposed and tenuous moves on the crux slab. The scrambling mostly requires confidence rather than climbing ability.
What skills and experience do you need?
Hill walkers with experience of exposed routes such as Carn Mor Dearg Arete or Crib Goch will find Ledge Route as the next step up. Route finding skills are crucial. Although most people do not use a rope on a dry day in good conditions, having a rope and knowing how to use it for a simple pitch would be a good plan.
Guidebooks: Highland Scrambles South (SMC). Scotland’s Mountain Ridges (Dan Bailey – Cicerone).
Back in January of this year, Billy and I enjoyed the hardest day of the winter for me. We trenched our way up deep, deep snow on Tower Ridge and trenched our way all the way back down by the Red Burn. Trench Warfare! Back for more climbing and more learning, Billy and I went to Glen Coe yesterday and to Glen Nevis today. The two days could not have been much different despite both being great days of climbing. Yesterday stayed cloudy and wet on the rock. No views but fun mountaineering style climbing that will prepare Billy for an ascent of the Matterhorn at some point. We went up D Gully Buttress (Difficult), down Curved Ridge (Moderate) and up North Buttress (Difficult) to complete about ten pitches of climbing plus scrambling up and down technical ground. The clouds cleared the summit as we got back to the van!
Today in Glen Nevis, the climbing at Poldubh was dry, warm, midge free and very nice indeed. We did a tour of classic climbs including Pinnacle Ridge, Upper Pinnacle Ridge, Three Pines, Flying Dutchman (direct finish), Pine Wall and Eigerwand before lunch, then Resurection and Damnation after lunch. All this climbing and pitching gave us lots of scope for learning all the techniques of rock climbing. Billy was belaying and taking out the protection, setting up his own belay anchors and tying in to them, sorting the ropes and abseiling as if in a retreat from a climb.
It was a lovely day to be in Glen Nevis. The colours of the leaves on the silver birch are just starting to change for the autumn, and the bracken is starting to go brown. The flowers on the heather are still giving a soft purple haze but it feels like the end of the summer and the rich, deep greens are about to fade as the oranges and reds of autumn come out. A cool start added to the sense of the change in the season but the sunshine was hot this afternoon! We could still get a few weeks of warm sunny weather yet.
Billy was doing so well with all the techniques of climbing that he was keen to try a bit of leading. So, we went back down to Upper Pinnacle where he "led" a pitch placing protection and clipping it in to a rope, while on a top rope belay. After I seconded the route to check the protection, Billy led it for real with his pre-placed protection. Quite a fast progression for a first day of rock climbing, from novice to lead climber in one day of cragging! And what a brilliant way to finish a varied two days of climbing.
Lucinda and Jo are on a flying visit to Scotland this weekend with the goal of reaching the summit of Ben Nevis. They wanted something a little more challenging than the mountain track so were hoping to do CMD Arete, however the weather had other ideas. With 50mph winds forecast for the summit we opted for the much more sheltered, but still challenging route up through Coire Leis.
It was a shame to not do the Arete but the route to Coire Leis takes you right along the base of the awe-inspiring cliffs of the North Face of Ben Nevis, and today they were looking particularly moody and imposing. We were perfectly sheltered for the loose and scrambly climb up the back of Coire Leis and it wasn't long until we popped out at the cairn at the end of CMD Arete. Impeccable timing meant we had a quick sandwich with beautiful views over the Aonachs and the Mamores before making the final ascent up the boulders enveloped in cloud, hail and snow. This is the first bit of snow of the autumn so it looks like winter isn't too far away.
Well done to Lucinda and Jo for achieving their goal and embracing pretty much every element Scotland could throw at them!
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.