All seasons in one day – [# 155 & 156]

Aonach Mor (1221m); Aonach Beag (1234m)

  • Pronunciation:              Ernoch More; Ernoch Bayk
  • Translation:                   Big Ridge; Little Ridge
  • Total distance:              17.2km
  • Total time:                     6hrs 48mins
  • Total ascent:                 1502m
  • Weather:                        Generally overcast but with a few sunny intervals. Heavy snow showers above 900m.
  • Start / end location:   The upper car park in Glen Nevis. [OS Map Sheet 41 – Grid Ref: NN 168 691]
  • Map:                                A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window. The map displays on most browsers, but not unfortunately Internet Explorer.

 

Elaine approaching the summit cairn on Aonach Mor in a heavy snow shower

Aonach Mor is perhaps better known to many as the home of Nevis Range – the skiing and mountain biking centre with the only gondola system of its kind in the UK. The gondolas are fully enclosed with each one being capable of transporting up to six people effortlessly from 300ft up to 2150ft on the north face of Aonach Mor, the eighth highest mountain in Britain. The journey takes approximately 12 – 15 minutes each way.

The start of the plateau just above the Nevis Gorge with Steall Waterfall and An Gearanach in the background

Today, however, we weren’t employing the assistance of the gondola for our ascent of Aonach Mor and its nearest neighbour Aonach Beag. Instead, our route would see us approaching the hills from the south starting from the spectacularly beautiful Glen Nevis.

We parked at the very end of the public road in Glen Nevis and took the excellent path eastwards through the Nevis gorge. The path contours its way around the nose of the Meall Cumhann buttress and passes through thick groves of hazel, birch, rowan and the occasional ancient Scots Pine as it clings to the steep hillside high above the River Nevis. The River Nevis at this point in its course rages through the narrowness of the gorge, plunging, cascading and eroding its way towards the sea at Loch Linnhe some 10km to the west. The area is very popular with visitors to Lochaber and has regrettably seen a few fatal accidents over the years: mainly through walkers stumbling on the rough path and accidently falling “over the edge” and landing in the Nevis far below.

Steall Waterfall with An Gearanach (L) in the background

After about 1km of walking (upstream) through the gorge the river level rose to just below the height of the path and here we could see the full erosive impact of the water in the smoothly sculpted pools that it had created over the last few millennia. It was here, with a sudden change in the landscape, that we left the top of the gorge and entered a huge high grassy plateau where the character of the Nevis was so different as it meandered its way downstream in a lazy fashion before its fed into the top of the gorge.

An Gearanach (L) and Steall Waterfall flowing from a hanging valley high above Glen Nevis

From our position at the top of the gorge we could see the huge Steall Waterfall (sometimes known as An Steall Bàn meaning “The White Spout” in Gaelic). The waterfall is fed from the Allt Coire a’ Mhail burn, which runs through the hanging valley formed between Sgurr a’ Mhaim and An Gearanach / Stob Coire a’ Chairn in the Mamore Range. The waterfall plunges over 120m from the mouth of the hanging valley to the floor of the plateau in a series of dramatic cascades. [Once, many years ago Elaine, my brother, David, and I walked through to the Steall plateau in very cold winter conditions to find that the waterfall was completely frozen with teams of ice climbers inching their way to the top.]

[If you are ever visiting the Fort William area and only have one afternoon to spare then I’d strongly recommend that you make the trip from the head of Glen Nevis through the gorge and out into the Steall plateau – you won’t be disappointed!]

Looking up onto the western cliffs of Aonach Mor

We continued to follow a path along the north side of the glen until we reached a wooden bridge over the Allt Coire Giubhsachan burn, just before the burn flowed into the Water of Nevis (as the River Nevis is called above the gorge). Before crossing the bridge we left the main path and took a faint path northward as it followed the western side of the burn. This path climbed quite steeply until it reached the lip of a hidden glen where it then levelled out. We continued to the back of this flat glen to where two corries took us NNE in two steep little tiers. At the top of the upper corrie we reached a col between Aonach Mor to the east and Carn Mor Dearg to the west.

Carn Mor Dearg from the western slopes of Aonach Mor

From the col we turned east and climbed the very steep west-facing ridge that brought us eventually onto the gently sloping south ridge of Aonach Mor, about 750m from of the summit. The climb up to this point took us over wet grassy tussocks and craggy boulders and, due to the general steepness, was quite serious given that one slip would have been disastrous! Luckily the angle began to ease off a little by the time we hit the snowline.

When we reached the flatter south ridge the fresh snow underfoot was quite thick and a shower of heavy snow began. The visibility was reduced to only 10m as we proceeded towards the summit. With our hoods up and heads down we marched on and soon reached the summit cairn of Aonach Mor at 1221m or 4,006ft.

In Gaelic, Mor means big and Beag means small, but in the case of today’s two mountains these adjectives refer the size of their respective ridges (or Aonach) and not their heights – as Aonach Beag is actually a little higher than its “big” neighbour, Aonach Mor!

Cameron on the snowy summit of Aonach Beag

To reach Aonach Beag we retraced our steps southward to just before the steep west ridge where we then continued south and passed a narrow col before we climbed the NW ridge of Aonach Beag. This ridge was reasonably steep but not nearly as exposed or tricky as the west ridge onto Aonach Mor had been earlier. The small summit cairn at 1234m or 4,049ft was quickly reached and we paused briefly for a snack. Unfortunately, there were still flurries of snow falling and our views remained obscured.

Ben Nevis (L) and Carn Mor Dearg (R) connected via the Carn Mor Dearg arete

Our line off the summit was via the SW ridge. This ridge was quite broad to begin with but quickly began to narrow as cliffs to the west and the steep corrie sidewall to the SE below An Aghaidh Gharbh hemmed it in. In the mist there were a couple of tricky decisions to be made to ensure that we remained on track and hence avoided many of the difficulties. After some further descending of the steep grassy slopes we reached the east side of the Allt Coire Giubhsachan burn in the level part of the hidden glen. In a heavy rain shower we negotiated a rough descent down the course of the burn along its east bank and back towards the wooden bridge in Glen Nevis.

Heading west across the "Steall" plateau towards the Nevis Gorge

Unfortunately, just before we reached the bridge we found ourselves “stuck” in a promontory between the Allt Coire Giubhsachan and one of its subsidiaries. The burns were in full spate and looked difficult to cross. We were faced with the choice of either re-ascending a fair bit back up the hillside or to cross the subsidiary burn higher up, or attempt to cross the subsidiary burn below us. We chose the latter – but it wasn’t easy given how slippy the rocks were and how fast flowing and deep the burn was. After some nifty footwork and good use of our walking poles we made it across safely and with our feet still dry. The wooden bridge crossing the Allt Coire Giubhsachan burn was now only about 40m away, which we gratefully crossed before we headed west along the high plateau of Glen Nevis.

As we drew up opposite Steall Waterfall the heavy rain shower that had accompanied us for the last forty five minutes quickly passed and left some beautiful blue skies and warm sunshine in its wake. Our walk back through the Nevis Gorge was exceptionally pleasant as the sun and wind began to dry our waterproof clothing and rucksacks. The weather though was so fickle as we’d only just reached the sanctuary of our car before the next batch of showers began to rattle through.

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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