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).
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.