First big trek by Phil (me) and Luca in the Scottish Highlands. We're more familiar with Alpine hiking but Covid meant that was not possible. Ending of lockdown gave opportunity to make the trip to Fort William and we were eager to get stuck into the munros, starting with the obvious target of Ben Nevis. After a lot of research (mostly on these forums) we decided the CMD arete was the route we would go for. Some straightforward scrambling and hopefully a way to avoid the crowds.
The breakfast offering at the B&B was too good to see us head off before dawn. If the weather had been better we might have been tempted to set off early to see the sunrise higher up. But it was clag, so we tucked in to haggis, square sausage and tattie scones and headed off to begin the route from the car park across from Achintee House at 0800.
Already, even on a day of poor weather, the Pony Track up to Ben Nevis was busy. It's easy enough on the Pony Track and I suppose that if Henry Alexander can drive a Model T Ford to the top in 1911 ('paving' the way with a good supply of TNT) then anyone can do it if they put their mind to it. I hadn't cottoned on until we got to Ben Nevis that the altitude of 1345 m is climbed from a starting point of not much above sea level. It's a good effort for anyone who takes it on.
We were eager to get onto the quieter paths. At Lochan Meall an t'Suidhe we took the left fork to go around to the north face of Ben Nevis towards the CMD arete. Suddenly there was no one, and we didn't pass any other people until we were on the CMD arete itself. It seems most people who climb up the Pony Track do so without a map and without a thought that there are much more interesting ways to climb to the summit if you put some thinking in. It was drizzling miserably at this point, but we were enjoying our first proper day out in the Highlands.
The character of the mountain towards the north face is completely different. We enjoyed the solitude as we passed Castle Ridge (hidden in clag). We saw a brave pair heading off past the CIC hut in the direction of Tower Ridge. Our route was down into the massive basin between Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg, ford across Allt a'Mhuilinn, and straight up the scree and boulder fields for Can Dearg Meadhonach. It looks subtly straightforward. In a way it is. But it's about a 500 m straight up calf-tearing slog.
On the scree slog we had nice views of the lower stretches of the North Face. We watched the progress of the pair we'd seen earlier, disappearing into the cloud towards Tower Ridge. For us it was a long long push up to the CMD arete. There's no path to follow but its straightforward enough. I preferred the boulder fields, Luca preferred the heather. We found it interesting how different Highlands scrambling is to Alpine scrambling. The weather can change quickly in both locations. But it is so much more vicious in the Highlands. And 1100 m in the Highlands feels like 2000 m in the alps.
On the arete we were glad to have some fairly level ground for the way ahead. Here is where the fun really starts. The ridge is an epic hike, scrambling in places, over Carn Mor Dearg round to Ben Nevis. We didn't have much by way of views but we enjoyed the atmosphere of being up there in the cloud.
Sometimes visibility was near zero and at these times we did question the wisdom of being high up on a ridge with a big drop either side. But we knew what to expect and we knew that the thing to do here is to stick to the top of the ridge and it will take you round the way you need to go. There weren't many other people around but we did meet a couple of Polish guys with their energetic sheepdog 'Scottie' (who must have put in twice as many miles as anyone else due to his habit of running ahead and running back) and four guys out for some wild camping. Most of the time it was just me, Luca and the cloud. Occasionally the clag lifts slightly and we could see the way ahead, we could see the Polish guys and their dog, and occasionally the other four guys. I think we were all looking out for each other at some points.
What surprised us most was that sometimes, just below the ridge, the wind was completely still. Once or twice we would get back on the crest and be hit with a blast like a gale, then back down a couple of feet and it was still again. Really vicious in the cloud, but ok so long as you know what to expect and are confident of the route. I've got a lot of respect for people who take on these routes in winter. The key mistake we made was forgetting a good pair of gloves. The rocks are very cold in the cloud, even in summer. It was a minor inconvenience and soon we were round at the boulder field that leads up to the summit plateau. The cloud broke and gave us a good view of the full ridge. Some sight.
The way up to the summit plateau was surprisingly hard work. At times the cloud hung in the basin like a cauldron. We kept on pushing for the plateau by which time the cloud had descended again and visibility back to zero. For a while it was eerily quiet and we had to focus a bit on the map and some route finding to get the right way to the summit cairn. It's very easy to wander off in the wrong direction. We heard voices and all of a sudden there were people everywhere. Even in the cloud people are queuing to get their photo op at the summit. We couldn't be bothered with any of that and after a short break made off for the route back down.
We weren't bothered about the lack of views. We'd had a great day out. The CMD arete is majestic. We slogged it back down the Pony Track passing the long line of people on their way to the summit. One day we will return for Castle Ridge.
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