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!
What do you need rock climbing shoes and flip flops, good planning and a bag full of enthusiasm for? Climbing Am Buachaille at Sandwood Bay, that's what. Especially if you have done no outside rock climbing before! This is the challenge that Andy and Ethan set themselves, with an atitude of giving it a go, getting the right training, and just being happy to be in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. It's good for all of us to take on challenges, new adventures, and to stretch ourselves every now and then. This trip certainly ticked all the boxes.
The weather was with us all the way. Learning to climb rock in warm sunshine above a calm glistening sea, on some of the most amazing rock anywhere, is pretty cool. Many people will choose a venue with fewer distractions to learn core skills like tying in to the rope, belaying, the pitching system, communication, asbeiling and taking out protection. But there is something totally inspiring about going to one of the farthest away bits of Scotland and learning all the skills as you go, in the place you want to be climbing. We chose a nice, gentle warm up and progression through the grades to start. V.Diff felt pretty hard as the first climb, and there was only 10m of it. But, very soon, the eyes saw the holds, fingers and feet connected with the holds, and balance and muscles worked in unison (most of the time) to allow for the climbing to happen.
We worked up to the same kind of grade as we would encounter on Am Buachaille, did several abseils over drops high above the sea, and generally got used to the system of climbing and solving the many little awkward problems that always crop up. Then we spent an idyllic night at Sheigra community crofters wild camp site, happily paying £5 per head for the luxury of flat machair for the night. Rain in the morning was forecast to clear early, and by breakfast time the blue sky was already returning and it was looking good for climbing Am Buachaille. However, this is the ultimate triathlon, with cycling, swimming and rock climbing, as well as the tide and sea state, sea gulls and slippery and sandy rock to deal with. Climbing Am Buachaille is a wonderful day of climbing, despite the quality of the climbing!
Get there early so you have plenty of time to prepare and swim the channel as soon as you can. In this way you will have the maximum time available to climb and abseil off before the tide rises again. We were ahead of time so we had the daunting site of the stack awash with water right up to its base, and waves crashing over the rocks all the way to the mainland cliff. Time to relax, wait and reassure yourself that the tide was going out. Not only this but the wind was dropping away, and the waves settling down. It was a very midgey walk down the steep loose path to the boulder beach so we were grateful of the plunge into the sea channel to wash away the little biters.
Three pitches of bold, sandy, steep rock climbing with occasional fulmar chicks still on the nest got us to the top, on Ethan and Andy's second day of outdoor rock climbing. To be fair, these guys have climbed Tower Ridge and Inaccessible Pinnacle, but two days of mountaineering don't prepare you for this kind of rock climbing! They both took it all in their stride though, seeing each and every section as a problem to decifer the solution to, calmly working out the problem until the correct combination of weight shift, pushing and pulling was found to unlock the move to the next one.
The swim back across the channel always seems a lot more friendly than the swim over in the first place. Only just after low tide, with calmer seas and more shelter provided by the base of the stack did make it much more friendly, but there is a psychological part of the calmness too. Swimming over for first time was full of uncertainty, swimming back was just fun. Massive congratulations to Andy and Ethan for even taking on the challenge, let alone how well you picked up everything and put it into practice straight away on one of the country's most adventurous sea stacks. Big respect!
With a day off yesterday and plenty of dry rock around, Caspar, Ruari and I were in need of a good day out in the mountains. Our options were either a big multi pitch route - Minus One Direct perhaps - or all of the Ben Nevis ridges, and it was very hard to decide. That was, until we got out of the van at the top car park. We were covered in midges instantly and the decision was made. We were going for the ridges. At that point we were actually under a layer of low cloud but MWIS suggested that the tops would be above, which made the idea of getting up high even more appealing.
But which order to do them in? If we were going to do all the ridges we wanted to do ALL of them, including CMD Arete. It is a ridge on Ben Nevis after all! So the logical place to start was with an ascent of Castle Ridge. The bottom part of the route was in the cloud still, but climbing the crux brought us out into the sunshine and looking down on the cloud that was just beginning to break up. From there we headed up the bouldery slopes of Carn Dearg and down Ledge Route. We wanted to avoid going back on ourselves as much as possible but we would have to do a little bit of looping around in order to use Tower Ridge as a descent, so next up was Observatory Ridge. This is the most sustained of all the ridges but being fully absorbed in the climbing meant we were at the summit before we knew it. Trotting past the crowds enjoying the sunshine, we headed for Tower Ridge and timed it perfectly. The parties we had seen on the ridge had already summitted so we had a clear run all the way down and back into Observatory Gully.
The third ascent of the day was North East Buttress and the legs were still feeling surprisingly ok. It was Ruari's first time on this route so he got the fun of leading Caspar and I up the Mantrap and the 40 Foot Corner, and once again we were on the summit plateau. Down the boulders we went, and on to our final ridge of the day - CMD Arete. It was a beautiful run along the Arete looking back at all of the ground we had covered, but making the final climb up the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, my legs were definitely beginning to feel all the ascent they had done. All that was left was the nice gradual descent and we were back at the van in exactly 9 hours.
This is something I had wanted to do for a while so it felt amazing to have done it on such a beautiful day, with good company and still feel pretty good after 17km and 2300m of ascent. I guess all the lockdown training has paid off!
How did you get through lockdown? It was a tough time for everyone, and a very tough time for some people. It will take many months before life returns to something like as free as it was last year, and the cost will be with us for many years to come. For me, I tried to resist the pressure to do something, the take up a new interest, learn a new skill. But, to stay fit, I did a bit of running.
Of course I jumped in far too hard at the start. Coming out of a winter of plodding in big boots, carrying big bags and ice climbing, I should have known that I would need to build up to running any kind of distance. Choosing routes that were too long and wearing old shoes gave me a touch of plantar fasciitis (sore feet) within a couple of weeks. Thankfully we had to do a two week stretch of self-isolation, a perfect rest period imposed on me, just at the right time.
So I got new running shoes and dialled it down a little. I was a bit more measured in what I took on and reminded myself that I am not in my early twenties still (far from it). The achiness in my legs after a run started to diminish each time and I started to enjoy the experience at the time, not just after I had finished each run. I started to feel strong, fluid and as if I could keep going for a bit longer. Sharing these experiences with friends of mine raised the notion of a suitable objective to train towards. Compared with all the huge routes and records that have been taken on and achieved by many people, Tranters Round is quite modest. But it was a big deal for me and the perfect test of my new found running legs.
Tranter's Round is effectively the Glen Nevis skyline. I can see it from my bedroom window and it is a very aesthetic route. It is about 60km with 6000m of ascent, links 18 Munros and includes Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg, Aonach Mor and Beag, The Grey Corries and all the Mamores. To do it properly you start at the Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis, but I thought it would be nice to start at my house since I live so close.
It was proper Alpine start with the alarm going off at 2.15am and setting off at 3am. The weather was set to be hot and sunny so an early start to avoid the worst of the heat was a good idea. Also, it's a really long way and it would be nice to finish before it gets dark! Somehow starting in the dark seems better and I got the timing right to arive on Ben Nevis as it got light enough to see without a torch. Mist on the summit made the rocks wet so the CMD Arete was a little slippery in my running shoes but as I got to Carn Mor Dearg I turned round to see the most wonderful cloud formations. The mist I had been inside was a flow of clouds pouring through the cols and into the coires.
The Grey Corries in the early morning were home to red deer and me, trotting along the ridge, enjoying the experience of moving fast and light. Under the few clouds and in occasional mist the temperature stayed low enough, but I made sure to stay hydrated even so. As the sun rose it shone down into the mist and created some brilliant brochenspectres. For the first half of the day I had a huge smile on my face, just because the beauty of the place and the feeling of running along these beautiful ridges. I was smiling during the second half o fthe run as well, but only on the inside.
To get across to the Mamores, you have to drop down to 400m, into the heat, tussocks and peat hags, just as the distance covered started to make itself known in the feeling of my legs. It is a big dip in altitude and the climb back up to The Mamores was a real dip in energy levels. To give me a boost, I saw an owl fly up out of a patch of heather in a peat hag. I was so close to it when it took off I saw every detail of its plumage. It was as surprised to see me as I was to see it. I have not often seen owls so close, especially out in the wilds like this.
There are two peaks at the end of the Mamores that sit separate to the main ridge. So, the first big climb is followed by two more only slightly less big climbs before you arrive at the end of the main ridge line of the Mamores. Mercifully, a gentle breeze and a few clouds kept the temperature down enough and regular water stops kept me going. Plus, you get to see how far you've come. Looking across Glen Nevis, Ben Nevis is a massive hulk of a mountain and you can see all the way along the Grey Corries past the Aonachs. It's a very rewarding thought, seeing all these peaks and knowing you have covered all that distance.
Inevitably I slowed down towards the end. Sore feet from being wet (take dry socks next time) and heavy legs made the ascents slower, the stops more frequent and the steep downs a walk instead of a run. I could still manage to run along the wonderful bit of ridge to the last Munro, Mullach nan Coirean, and down into Glen Nevis. However, the last bit of flat track reduced me to half walking, half running. I returned to the road near the Youth Hostel to a wonderful greeting from Louise and Katie, a wee tear and a gratefully received lift down the tarmac back home.
At 17.5 hours for my Tranter's Round, Finlay Wild can rest assured that I will not be taking his record off him any time soon. He recently beat his own record, setting a new fastest known time of about 9 hours. For us mortals, anything less that double Finlay's time is good.
So, mission accomplished. I am now a runner.
“How hard is Ben Nevis?” and “Is Ben Nevis harder than Snowdon?” are questions we often get asked. Hopefully this blog will help answer these questions.
It is difficult to know whether you are capable of walking up Ben Nevis. Unless you have done similar walks up other mountains, you have no gauge or marker to tell you that you will be able to manage it. We all like to think that we are quite fit and healthy but this is the biggest mountain in the UK.
Here are the numbers. The walk up Ben Nevis from Glen Nevis is 16km (8km each way) which is 10 miles. This on its own is fine. Along the flat we can walk at about 4km/hr or 5km/hr, so it would take four hours to do the whole thing. But, of course, there is also the climb up and down to think about.
Ben Nevis has 1300m of ascent and descent in those 16km. This is the height of a 430-storey building. The path up Ben Nevis is not as steep as the steps in a building but you can perhaps get an idea of what is involved by walking up the tallest building you can find or walking up a few flights of stairs lots of times.
If you have a hill in your area that is, say, one quarter the size of Ben Nevis, you can use this as a gauge. A hill that is 325m high and the path is 2km to the top is one quarter the size of Ben Nevis; walk this four times and you will get a good idea of what Ben Nevis is like. It’s not quite like Ben Nevis though because changing from climbing up to walking down repeatedly makes it easier. We are not using the same muscles in the same way repeatedly for as long.
We all know that walking up will be hard work, and we are right. It might take 3 or 4 hours (or sometimes 5 hours) to reach the top. The angle of the path is much the same for the entire climb up, so it is unrelenting hard work for 4 hours. After a short rest at the top, we soon discover that walking down is just as hard work and possibly sorer than climbing up, especially as we will be walking down for 3 or 4 hours.
On the climb up our cardiovascular systems are working hard. On the way down, it is easy for our hearts and lungs, but the muscles in our legs work very hard, plus the jarring on our feet, ankles and knees, make it harder than you think.
The surface of the path is dry and mostly very good. The lower half of the path is very well made with smooth sections of grit and small steps made with rocks. The upper half has more small, loose rocks on the path and more random, irregular rocks scattered about. These are mobile, quite loose and make it harder work underfoot. The small rocks also push into the soles of your shoes, so sturdy soled shoes or boots are best.
If you only ever walk on smooth pavements and concrete and don’t do any exercise that will strengthen your ankles (such as tennis, dancing, squash, football, cross-fit) you will find it hard to walk over the irregular surface of the trail and it will be harder work for you (especially your ankles).
Coming down is always hard work on your thigh muscles and the joints of your legs. Do as much training as you can in preparation for your walk up Ben Nevis by walking up and down hills. If you don’t have hills near you, try walking along a coastal path. These often have lots of smaller ups and downs. If you can’t get out at all, try walking up and down as many stairs as you can, but remember to try to train your ankles on irregular surfaces somewhere as well. Walking on sand and pebble beaches is excellent for this.
Snowdon is 1085m high compared to Ben Nevis at 1345m high. If you start in Llanberis at 110m above sea level, the height gain is 990m and the distance is 7.3km each way. So, Ben Nevis is about one third bigger than Snowdon if you walk the Llanberis path. If Snowdon took you 6 hours, Ben Nevis will take you 8 hours. (From Pen y Pass on the Pyg Track there is 870m of ascent over 5.9km.)
Most people who take on the walk up Ben Nevis do make it to the top and back down. It is only one day, so some people are happy to try harder than they ever have done before, knowing that they can take a day or two of rest afterwards. Make sure you go prepared for a long, gruelling day, take all the right clothing and equipment, drink and eat lots on the way, and use walking poles on the descent, you will probably be OK.
And remember, it’s only a mountain. If it turns out to be too much, just turn around and come back down, before you can’t take another step! Enjoy being on the mountain, soak up the atmosphere and the landscape, enjoy the nature of the place. Reaching the summit is just one part of the Ben Nevis experience.
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.