Bagging ‘The Ben’ in brilliant weather – [# 164 & 165]

Carn Mor Dearg (1220m); Ben Nevis (1343m)

  • Pronunciation:              Karn More Jerrack; Ben Nevis;
  • Translation:                   The Big Red Cairn; Origins unknown – possibly Venomous;
  • Total distance:              18.4km
  • Total time:                     6hrs 36mins
  • Total ascent:                 1540m
  • Weather:                        Beautiful warm sunny day. A little mist obscured the summit of Ben Nevis as we arrived around 12.30.
  • Start / end location:   The Ben Nevis North Face car park near Torlundy just off the A82. [OS Map Sheet 41 – Grid Ref: NN 144 774]
  • 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.

The whole of the north face of Ben Nevis from high up on Carn Mor Dearg

The weather over the last four weeks has been unseasonably inclement to say the least and so we’ve been monitoring the forecast in anticipation of a favourable day to do justice to climbing Ben Nevis and its nearest neighbour, Carn Mor Dearg. Today turned out to be just such a day.

Far away from the tourist trail with an early morning view towards the north face of Ben Nevis from the side of the Allt a' Mhuilinn burn

Our route started at the purpose built “north-face” car park situated by Torlundy (on the A82) to the NNW of Carn Mor Dearg. The day began with a cloudless sky and was quick to warm up as we left the car park and made our way upwards on an excellent path that wove steeply through some dense conifer plantations. The trees shaded us for a while until we broke through their upper boundary and arrived beside a small dam on the Allt a’ Mhuilinn burn. We stayed on the east side of the burn and followed a path along the burn’s course for a short while before we strayed off to begin our long climb up the right hand side of the broad NW ridge of Carn Mor Dearg.

Ascending the NNW flank of Carn Mor Dearg with the full vista of Ben Nevis' North face behind

There was only a very faint path to follow, which was generally very wet and mucky in places and many sideways diversions were required to avoid the worst of the bog underfoot. As we gained height the ground became a little drier and eventually a more recognisable path became evident. This path provided a route up to around 900m where it then swung round to the right (westward) to run almost parallel to the main ridge all the way to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg. We continued climbing to reach Carn Beag Dearg (1010m), a subsidiary top on the main ridge.

Nearing the summit of Carn Dearg Meadhonach with its ENE ridge in profile

On Carn Mor Dearg - the aptly named big RED peak

As we climbed higher the views of the north face of Ben Nevis became ever more impressive with the cliffs stretching for over 2.5km from Coire Leis through to Carn Dearg. When you see the scale of the mountain, and you are far away from the hoards of holidaymakers battling up the “tourist” mountain path on the west side of the hill, you can truly appreciate that The Ben, as it is affectionately known to climbers, deserves it’s status as Britain’s highest peak. For those of us who know The Ben well, it really is a magnificent mountain, as it stands head and shoulders above any of its nearest rivals with its distinctive summit profile instantly recognisable from all directions from many tens of miles away. [Unlike most other mountain regions in Scotland where the name of Ben or Beinn is used very liberally, here in this part of Lochaber no other hills surrounding The Ben use this identifier – perhaps in reverence to living in the shadow of the mightiest one of them all?]

(L-R) Aonach Beag, Carn Mor Dearg, Binnein Beag and Binnein Mor

The summit of Carn Mor Dearg (L) with the Carn Mor Dearg arete connecting to Ben Nevis (R)

We continued to follow the crest of the broad NNW admiring the views eastward towards the steeply gullied west face of Aonach Mor (which hosts the Nevis Range Ski and Mountain Biking Resort). Looking along our ridge path our eye was drawn to the interesting ENE ridge that ran from the top of Carn Dearg Meadhonach in a series of three giant pinnacle steps all the way to the glen floor far below.

Once we reached the top of Carn Dearg Meadhonach (1179m) we could clearly see the summit of Carn Mor Dearg only a further 500m away. We dropped down the ridgeline before making the final assault to reach the summit cairn of Carn Mor Dearg at 1220m or 4,003ft. The views in every direction were simply breathtaking. To the NW we looked down on the villages of Corpach and Coal and then beyond to the Druim Fada (744m) and finally to the Munros around Glen Finnan and Knoydart. Then to the south the Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) Arête swept round to join up with Ben Nevis, where the might of its north face dominated the whole of the western vista.

The Mamores (L-R) - Binnein Beag, Binnein Mor, Na Gruagaichean, An Gearanach, Stob Coire a' Chairn, Am Bodach & Sgurr a' Mhaim

The next phase of our route was to cross the CMD Arête, which connected our summit with the SE slopes of The Ben. We dropped from the summit and made our way across the arête, scrambling along the crest of the ridge as much as possible. It was never difficult but did require a degree of confidence and a good head for heights to really enjoy the experience. Towards the western end of the arête a metal sign indicates the location of a series of metal posts that can be used to abseil from the arête down into Coire Leis. In the past, Elaine and I have scrambled up beside these posts to gain the summit after walking along the base of the North Face to reach Coire Leis – another wonderful way to climb The Ben.

The north face of Ben Nevis from Carn Mor Dearg - Tower Ridge can be seen just left of centre

After crossing the CMD Arête we began the steep climb up the SE side of The Ben by negotiating our way over a jumble of large boulders – around 250m of ascent was required. We topped out on the summit plateau just to the south of the marker cairn, Trig Point and the remnants of the old observatory [staffed between 1883 and 1904] and hotel [closed c.1906]. Regrettably, the mist had rolled in and spoilt all views from the summit – although we were content that we’d already had such good views from Carn Mor Dearg towards The Ben itself.

Cameron and Elaine on the summit of Carn Mor Dearg with Ben Nevis in the background

After the relative solitude of the CMD Arête ascent route we found ourselves thrust into the bustle of a very busy summit: the price of fame that The Ben pays for its iconic status as the highest mountain in Britain. Strangely, after us standing on 164 previous Munro summits either on our own or with only one or two others at most, the sight of all of the other “climbers” was surprisingly welcome – it was great to see all these people enjoying themselves having overcome their own personal challenges to conquer The Ben.

The Carn Mor Dearg arete leading to the summit of Ben Nevis

Carn Mor Dearg arete with Sgurr a' Mhaim and Stob Ban in the background

The price of being the highest mountain in the UK - Ben Nevis summit plateau and cairn

The price of being the highest mountain in the UK - Ben Nevis summit plateau with the mountain shelter and ruins of the old observatory

That said, far too many of these day-trippers appeared not to be adequately prepared for the serious conditions that The Ben could deliver had the weather changed – which it often does at very short notice. Many didn’t have suitable clothing and footwear for anything other than “perfect” conditions – which it fortunately was today. Others didn’t appear to have any water or other refreshments despite the round-trip walk being around 16km.  Regrettably, a fair proportion of ascenders who climb the so-called “tourist” mountain path come unstuck due to underestimating the challenges of conquering the mountain and end up requiring the assistance of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue – a police service manned by dedicated volunteers.

Our route off The Ben was to join the hoards of people using the mountain path that initially snakes its way down the convex slopped western side of the hill. We utilised this path and jogged passed most of the others who were also descending until we reached the SE side of the halfway lochan (Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe), where we then continued northward back round towards the north face. The path split in two with the right hand one veering round the flank of Carn Dearg as it made its way towards the CIC Hut (Charles Ingles Clark Hut) below Coire Leis, and the left hand one, which we took, headeds to the NE tip of the halfway lochan where it petered out. From the end of the lochan we took to the open heather hillside and dropped in a northerly direction back towards the Allt a’ Mhuilinn burn. The terrain was rather boggy in places and we had to zigzag our way down to avoid the worst of the wetness. When we reached the burn we followed it downstream until an iron rail from an old narrow gauge railway line provided us with a suitable tightrope-style crossing point. Once across we joined the path through the conifer plantation, which took us back to the north-face car park.

The weather had been excellent and certainly made the day’s climb much more appealing, and after our ascent we both agreed that Britain’s highest peak is truly a stunning mountain, especially if climbed as we did, via the Carn Mor Dearg Arête.

The summits of Carn Mor Dearg (foreground) and Aonach Mor (background) from the summit of Ben Nevis

Elaine at the summit trig point on Ben Nevis

Standing on the summit edge of Ben Nevis' north face with Tower Ridge in the background

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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