I have done a few Munros in wintery conditions. These being Ben Cruachan & Stob Diamh, and Beinn Narnain & Beinn Ime. On the Cruachan Horseshoe, zero visibility and snow-filled tracks led to an error of judgement that nearly cost us our lives; on Beinn Narnain I lost some skin and nearly lost the contents of my bowels on the ice-filled Spearhead gully; and on Beinne Ime I fell through the snow into a river (just a small one though).
So, until I’ve been on a winter mountain skills course, we are getting close to the end of our Munro walking season. We decided that before that happens, we’d better have a go at Ben Nevis.
My hiking buddy fancied doing the CMD arête. I did some research, watched a couple of videos on YouTube, and decided it might not be for me. But hiking in company means making collective decisions. I agreed that given the right conditions, I might give it a go.
The right conditions are the following:
- A very early start – it could take 12-13 hours, and a late start might mean descending and navigating in darkness. Cornflakes before dawn then!
- Low winds – the CMD arête is not a route to tackle in high winds.
- No rain or ice. Lofty and airy scrambles can make me dizzy, feel sick and wobbly in the legs. In return I’d want good dry handholds.
The plan would be to go up to Glen Nevis the night before the ascent, and keep an eye on the weather. We’d set out in the morning, reach the halfway lochan and then a final decision on CMD or not CMD.
Because we might be doing a quite demanding and potentially dangerous ascent, I packed and planned for the worst. For the first time EVER, I reviewed what I put on my back.
I already possess a 40 litre rucksack, which is a little bit big, and has a raincover which blows away in a light breeze – no use. And I have my cycling daypack, which is luminous yellow, and has no features (but for £6 from ebay, it’s been bomb proof for the past three years) butt’s now starting to fray.
I bought a decent rucksack – an Osprey Stratos 26. And it is rather good. Light, lean, a very smart raincover, great features and a brilliant way of storing poles/phones/sweets etc.
Mindful of a scarey climb, I packed by the book. Spare everything, plus first aid kit, blister pads, painkillers, brand new flask for tea, proper waterproof map of the area, compass, route planned with exits, extra emergency rations (yes – always pack more jelly babies than you think you’ll need). I also downloaded a GPS map of the route to my iPhone, packed my leatherman, a bivvy bag and full waterproofs. Oh, and cheese sandwiches.
We set out on Friday afternoon from Paisley and drove north up past Loch Lomond and on to Tyndrum. The weather was with us and we were quite excited. I had been excited since Thursday morning, and would remain so until 1am on Saturday morning.
We talked pretty much all the way until we reached Fort William and the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel.
At 9pm we turned out the lights, and then every 20 mins or so the lights went on and off as various hikers/revellers came/left. I had the top bunk and the lightbulb was inches above my face. I wasn’t getting much sleep. Then the sound that no-one wants to hear came to our ears. Above our heads a mountain rescue helicopter was systematically combing the mountain for a lost soul.
It went on for ages.
At about 1am I got up and went downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of water. There were hikers coming and going even at this time of night. It transpired there was a meteor storm hitting the atmosphere above us, and plenty of boots had gone out to witness it. One pair of boots didn’t make it back.
As a result of our restless night, we slept in. My buddy woke at 6am, and we clattered out of bed, stripped the beds in the darkness, grabbed our gear and got dressed in the hallway so as not to wake our roommates.
Downstairs it was cereal, boots on and bye! We were on the trail head for 7am – so still had time to do the CMD arête if we felt like it.
Inside half an hour, I was down to my shorts and t-shirt. The sun was rising with intent and the sweat steamed off our backs as if we were vampires caught out by the sunrise.
It’s a sight I’ll remember for a long while. Looking back down Glen Nevis, a swirling pool of thick fog, and above it, the September sun setting fire to the peaks opposite. I’ve seen the sun rise plenty of times, but that’s the first time I’ve really seen it do a “Ta-da!”.
On the first wide zigzag before the halfway lochan we met a team of three climbers carrying ropes. They had done the Tower and a bit of the arête the previous night and told us the arête was a bit icy on their final push up, and they had turned back to make camp just before dusk. That sealed it for us. No arête today.
We took the mountain path instead. It’s still a big walk, but just not very interesting underfoot. At least we had set out early, and we quickly passed groups of three-peak challengers.
One three-peaker looked at me in my shorts and t-shirt and said, “You do know there’s snow on top don’t you?”. I had enough gear on my back to survive a 24-hour arctic storm, but there’s always a Yahoo who thinks shorts are only for the beach.
Personally, I love hiking in shorts. I feel, ahem … unrestricted! And my socks can roll right up to the kneecaps if required. If the weather turns really nasty, I can pop on my weatherproof trousers and I’m happy as a bug in a rug.
But this day there would be no need for trousers – the sun was splitting the sky! And the views were pretty good.
We reached the summit at 9.35am, and I have to say, I felt a little hemmed in. There was a large team of quite obnoxious three-peakers with a guide who was even more obnoxious.
The guide cast me a sideways glance and shouted “Three minutes team, three minutes. Layer up and we go! Three minutes people!” I waited to the side while group shots and more shouting was done and nobody seemed to notice the fucking view!
I sighed and got out my flask. “Cup of tea and a biscuit mate?” I said to my pal. “Aye, that sounds right”.
One of the three-peakers hung back from his pack and looked at my flask. “Wow, you brought tea…”
“Do you want a cup?” I offered.
He paused for a moment. “No. I’d better go. Pushed for time” and he shuffled off to catch up with the still-shouting guide, who was still shouting about pushing hard and not-letting up and sustained effort. Fud!
We had just witnessed an example of how to take hillwalking, and turn it into a joyless task. I took a sip of tea, and tore a chunk out of my celebratory bar of Snickers. As I pointed my face towards the CMD arête I saw a lone hiker summit Ben Nevis from the business side. He was mid-twenties, tall and had that relaxed methodical gait that eats mountains.
He had no interest in milling about the cairn with gathering crowds, and came towards the quiet side of the summit where I was sitting, and sat down.
“Just done the arête, buddy?” I asked.
“Yep. My sixth time on this hill. The arête was quiet this morning, not too bad.”
We chatted a bit and then he went off the hill, pretty much ignoring the summit cairn and the gathering masses. We knew it was time to go.
By about 10.30/11am the hill was a conveyor belt of red-faced and well-meaning charity fund-raisers. They are doing something way beyond their comfort zones in aid of poor souls who’ll likely never experience the meaning of a comfort zone. I take my hat off to them, but I wish they would pack a hat at the very least!
There were just too many people coming up the hill in jeans, or worse. Tourists with only cameras to protect them, and day-trippers dragging kids up the mountain with little more than a make-up bag. But worse than that was the lack of mountain etiquette.
It should go like this… I say hi, you say hi. If we like, we can optionally extend that. And if by chance we meet at the top, we’ll likely stop and chat awhile, us strangers.
On the way down I thought I could see where the fellow (who had died on Friday night) might well have lost his footing and fallen into the gully. You can only hope it was over quickly.
It reminded me of reading recently about a quite famous fell-runner who had fallen into a peat bog and had died alone out on the hills. A terrible way to punch out, alone and undiscovered in the wilds?
Well, I’m not entirely convinced of that – after all, you could die somewhere really crap, like at a desk! If the last thing my eyes ever saw was strip lighting, I’d be mightily pissed off.
Thinking back to the chap who died on Ben Nevis a couple of miles from my bedroom window, I hope the last thing he saw was an amazing display of falling stars, the likes of which a fellow could only ever hope to see but once in a lifetime.
- Walker dies after Ben Nevis fall (bbc.co.uk)