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A Life in a Day on Ben Nevis via the Carn Dearg Arete

A Life in a Day on Ben Nevis via the Carn Dearg Arete

Postby dobitoc » Sun Oct 04, 2009 4:53 pm

Route description: Ben Nevis by the Carn Mor Dearg Arete

Munros included on this walk: Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg

Date walked: 27/08/2009

Time taken: 10 hours

Distance: 15 km

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We had overslept that morning. The previous evening's 'leg-stretcher' up the Pap of Glencoe had brought us a Scottish assortment of midges, misty warm drizzle on the ascent, and finally (the sting in the tail of Hurricane Bill) a period of cold, driving rain on the descent. But we 'd had 25 minutes of tranquillity on the summit where the shelter kept out the wind long enough for our cup of coffee not to go cold. I knew even then that I was unlikely to feel such an endomorphinic sense of well-being again on our holiday. My muscles were warm to the point of being someone else’s; I was befriending individual blades of wild grass; my mind was wandering free and thinking laterally about the holiday ('Maybe we should redo the Pap tomorrow if the weather's good? Ben Nevis is probably overrated anyway'); in a word 'gemütlichkeit' was everywhere.

The next day everything had changed. Everything took time. Everything was 'ungemütlich', from the 8 a.m. dispute in the shop about a two-for-one offer on micro-waveable meals, to the strangely sweet taste of the onion as I prepared our sandwiches. We hadn't slept well, both of us dreaming of problems at work. Why does the subconscious mind always pour over worries from which the body has been hauled away? I went to Scotland to give the mind a break as well as the body, but a broken sleep told its own, fractured story. It seemed every part of me had its own agenda that day. My legs were ungovernable, if not particularly sore. I had a twitch in my shoulder which I attributed to my first experience of using walking sticks on the Pap the evening before. My head meanwhile was intent on not concentrating, particularly at roundabouts in Fort William where, forgetting I was in a automatic hire car, I kept braking as if trying to impress at the emergency stop routine during my driving test. I even managed to drive past the Youth Hostel path in Glen Nevis from which I had planned to steal a march on those coming up from Authenleith. Everything was being done in too much haste, but at not enough speed.

I have learned that pre-walk frustrations lead to too much haste in the first minutes of the walk itself, as if charging up the mountain can steal back those precious minutes lost along the path of life's absent-mindedness. Nevertheless charge up the hill I did, a triumph of irritation over experience. Arriving at the junction with the Authenleith path we rested to glug down 250ml of fizzy drinks each. I need two or three such stops early on hard ascents as I sweat profusely and fear a sugar deficit any moment. Despite the first signs of rain, I also removed a layer of clothing to let the wind in. Whatever the weather I need to keep cool on the ascent, even if that mean's getting damp. I'm damp with sweat anyway, so in my book it's better to keep moving, thereby keeping warm. I go bare-legged on mountains for the same reason. At this point I can hear seasoned walkers interjecting their comments: 'The rain'll get in your boots' 'Your legs'll get wind-chapped' 'Wet shorts'll chafe on your thighs' 'You’ll lose too much body heat too quickly'. To which I say (a) my legs are naturally well insulated and (b) I keep a change of shirt & fleece in a sealed bag in case the sweat doesn't get wind-dried later on, or in case I get drenched by rain (c) I dry my boots out overnight and (d) You’re right, I do sometimes suddenly get too cold, but then I know not to go up dangerous mountains in really adverse conditions. Admittedly, even in mid-summer, the rain can be more like horizontal hail, and the wind can be whipping the fleece out of my numbed hand even as I try to put it on. That's when I need some luck, a summit shelter, or a plan B. Preferably all three.

In the end I figure there are 3 considerations in hill-walking: what's on the inside; what's on the outside; what's in the middle. On the inside there's first of all your physical state. For 6 and a half weeks before tackling Ben Nevis I trained by tramping daily across the footpaths of deepest (I live in the middle of the county), darkest (I was out at 10pm some nights) Cambridgeshire. Of course this prepared me physically to tramp across the footpaths of deepest, darkest Cambridgeshire, not the highest mountain in the UK. Also on the inside is your character (in this case deep inside, decidedly introverted) and natural proclivities (I prefer descending). On the outside is the terrain, and the shifting circumstances of the day (weather, time, unfordable fords). In the middle is the equipment you take with you. Our watchword is to take only what we feel we need, not necessarily what the guide-books advise. After two bottles of fizzy drinks on the ascents, I rely only on the (plentiful) hot milk in my flask to stave off future attacks of thirst (adding one quick teaspoonful of coffee is quick, & avoids the drink getting cold). People talk about point 'x' being the last opportunity to fill up water bottles, but I (& my delicate stomach) hate cold water. I won't drink it, even on a roasting day. I don't even stock up anymore like I once did by drinking 5000ml of water before setting off, partly because I now suffer from a bladder condition. Water and the prospect of it does nothing for my pleasure glands, whereas the thought of a hot milk or coffee is a carrot to this donkey to keep going.

Which brings us to the one imponderable which impacts on, and is impacted on by, these three categories; namely morale. Obviously morale is technically one of the things 'on the inside', not a separate category. I'm guilty of a pathetic fallacy to assume that somehow the skies are brighter, the rain more unrelenting, or the sheep less indifferent when I've had a cheese and onion sandwich. At the same time a funny thought, an attentive collie, or a finger of Scottish shortbread, (things inside, outside, and in the middle) can both improve, and be improved by, one's morale. 'Morale' has the quality of an intangible and highly volatile element that pervades everything around. If morale is not the fuel, or absence of fuel, that determines the walk's completion, then at least it's the oil, or absence of oil, that determines the walk's momentum. And without momentum, you risk incompletion. Keeping up this donkey's morale is his most important consideration. On the hills 'things happen', and I can't kick against all the pricks without a helping hand. I'm not an irresistible force, and the given object might at any time prove immovable (like the North Face of Ben Nevis, perhaps). Making a decent decision can be a matter of instinct when the path peters out. So all I can do is keep a few luxuries amid the necessities, in the hope that the morale-boost these things provide will inform my decision when the crunch comes. The little things add up here. A fresh baseball cap for instance if the first one gets sodden (I'm bald and burn rapidly on top if I wear no headgear at all). But morale is also a double-edged sword. If too high, it can blinker my perception. On the Ring of Steall the day after this walk, I suffered nausea brought on by not eating enough because the adrenaline was masking the hunger. Morale therefore can even impact on morale.

Morale-wise, there is something that always happens to me when walking along such a well-frequented path as the one that leads to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. Willy-nilly I get drawn into competition against two or three other groups of walkers whose overall pace more or less matches my own. And winning any race, however pointless, can improve my morale. At one moment you're ahead but the pace of the group behind is quickening. Best to stop now by that ford so they don't get the satisfaction of passing you on the hoof. As they go by, your aloof demeanour suggests you were always planning to stop there anyway. They go on ahead and stop. You come up behind and they move off when you get within 20 metres. They have to stop again because they didn't stop long enough the first time. You nip ahead only to find your flask is digging in your back. You carry on, barely maintaining your lead, until you realise the absurdity of all this. You give up, adjust your rucksack, and they wander up the fell never to be seen again that day, even on the descent. You wonder later what happened to them. A third group falls behind irretrievably and yet you pass them again on the descent. Where had they passed you? Did they stop before the summit and turn back? On this particular day I tell myself if only my mind could avoid indulging in petty competition with others and focus instead on some subject worthy of contemplation, such as what aspects of their make-up make mountain sheep more tolerant of the conditions they encounter. But I can’t help betting on myself to get to that next corner first as though I were the white horse in that amusement arcade game, the 10-1 outsider, ready to spring a surprise. I need an early win to boost my morale. My morale must be shaky. It's early on the climb, and nothing has yet been achieved. That'll be the reason.

We noticed very few mountain sheep that day on the flanks of Ben Nevis. I was looking forward to them baaing their utter disdain and incredulity at my hubristic and pointless ambition to scale an utterly grass-free summit on two legs. They have a point. I fall to thinking of those young sparrows in my garden in Spring, flattening themselves on a sun-warmed fence post, resting, conserving energy, avoiding stress. What am I doing up here? Animals have far more commonsense. Of the birds and beasts, only ravens seem to patronise mountain summits, and they're not there long.

Later I notice strips of white in the distance and recognise them as the huge plastic bags that cover the stones that volunteers will later use to repair the path. And here's me cursing to myself and complaining about the effort of walking on those stones. I feel humbled. Time to show a bit more resolve.

We reach the parting of the ways. The path round the back of Ben Nevis beckons us by its solitude, while the well-trodden path swings right carrying its passengers on like an escalator. From time to time I look back at the stream of walkers heading away from us, wondering at their indifference to real adventure, but envying their certainty and security. The Greek and Roman poets made much of pursuing an untrodden path in their work, but literature and life are different things. Did Hesiod ever climb Helicon or did Virgil ever climb Soracte? There again, did I ever write a distinguished poem? Whatever, it’s still it’s a curse this compulsion to take the difficult path in life. I think of the lonely walks I used to make to the crease as an opening batsman when I played cricket. I was a natural number one, a sucker for punishment having no real talent other than a desire to ensure the opposition would not pass. But morale-wise I might as well have been going to meet a firing squad. The team score was always '0-0'. My score was always '0 not out'. There was metaphorical mountain to climb and I had to haul the heavy gear up the first and hardest slope (like those volunteer path repairers). I didn’t want to do it. Or did I? Yes, my score was ‘0’, but also ‘not out’. A few runs would improve morale. And so would the dismissal of my fellow opening batsman, whose performance could not then put mine in the shade. What an amoral thing morale is.

We reach a cairn as the path continues to curve towards the north face of the mountain. Only later would I learn that cairns are few but significant in these mountains. We should have started our descent towards the Allt a’Mhuilinn there and then, but instead go too far round, before, looking down and across the valley, we notice a gash in the hillside across the river near a clump of trees. Thinking it could be a path or at worst a stream, and seeing no other encouraging sign, we make a beeline for it across the sodden mounds of heather. It’s a soul-destroying process to ‘descend away’ a big chunk of what you’ve ‘ascended up’. The heart sinks along with each squelchy step. Anxiety creeps in more forcibly as we reach the river and find no fordable point. We scour the banks further downstream. At the crossing to the second island down from the trees, we use one walking stick each as a fifth (and firmest) limb to make it across, only to realise that we are only on the island, not the far bank. What happens to the brain at these moments? When fear, preoccupation, tiredness, and exertion combine to rob the mind of its remaining Random Access Memory, you forget an island is an island. You're suffering from 'lack of RAM'. So when your brain then turns to thoughts of a roasted joint of meat on the evening’s dinner table, then you can be sure it’s trying to tell you in its own inimitable way, that (a) you're hungry but also (b) that 'rack of lamb' you're picturing is a spoonerism for 'lack of RAM'. Of course if you’re just hungry then ‘Monday Lunchtime’ becomes ‘Lundi Munchtime’. And 'spoonerisms' become 'spoons'.

We get across, just. Back upstream we find the gash is, as expected, just the course of a stream. However there are boot marks to show other walkers have been here before. Now the hardest part of the day begins. It’s after lunch, the incline is nearly vertical, the terrain is waterlogged and pathless, the second baseball cap is already nearly wet through, the body objects to a second even more gruelling climb, the mind is starting to worry about time and the weather forecast, and then the midges arrive from nowhere. Morale improves slightly when I find that, on the flanks of Carn Dearg Meadhonach at least, there is only, apparently, a very narrow altitude band within which midges thrive. After a few minutes we are through them.

What is the Latin for 'heather'? When the body is labouring, the mind desperately latches onto 'silly season' subjects (it's August). But I can't find a logical process that will lead me to the answer, so there's no mileage (or 'footage') in trying. Without some road map to the answer, I can't spin enough mental thread to mask the physical pain. Which is the whole point of the exercise. Let's try 'grass'. It's 'gramen' in Latin. That's too easy. Let's make as many anagrams out of 'gramen' as possible. That'll do it. That's a process. That'll take the mind off the body. ''Manger' 'marge' 'anger' 'range' 'rage'. There's a theme emerging here, involving 'food' 'rest' 'mountains' and 'extreme irritation'. Suddenly a path emerges, winding in from the left. It must have come up from further down the valley towards the golf club. We should have gone back down the valley to pick it up at source. It would have saved on morale. But we didn't know it was there. Who cares. Let's get to the summit. It's 2.45. It's not early anymore.

We pass the summits of Carn Dearg Meadhonach and Carn Mor Dearg in mist and respectful silence. There's no time or inclination for triumphalism. Across the valley the north face of Ben Nevis has its own mantle of cloud. Why, I wonder, do those who wear the 'North Face' designer gear, avoid the North Face itself? We have not seen a soul since leaving the Lochan, and the solitude is starting to become oppressive. Approaching the arête, we know our patience and strength are now limited. No time for heroics. We'll take the lower path to the south, avoiding the scrambling necessary to pass directly along the top. But even the lower path proves awkward. It is precipitous, rugged, and hard to follow. We have no time to appreciate the views down over the increasingly clear Eastern Mamores.

Finally we reach the last climb. It is 4.30 as we take in the towering peak away to the right. Our energies are at a low ebb, and our patience with the mountain is gone. All we can do is stumble upwards as the path disappears into a sea of fathomless boulders. A track of sorts appears intermittently, picked out by small yellow-grey stones, crushed and packed into the interstices between the boulders. But we haven't the wit or will to follow it, preferring to stagger from boulder to boulder in the hope that our zigzagging will carry us through. At one stage I stop to heave air into my lungs, and a thrill of panic rushes through me as a feeling of faintness wells up. Suddenly, a cheerful young couple appear, clambering down over the stones above us. I am desperate to borrow their smiles for a while, as I feel on the edge of despair.

With our faces to the rocks, we trudge upwards, unaware of our progress. Suddenly at 5.20 we totter out into level ground and glimpse the summit area through the mist. Without warning the torment is over. Slightly dazed we survey the scene. It has the brooding menace of a black-and-white Doctor Who set from the 1970's. The mist, ruins, and monumental cairns seem to evoke the reeking aftermath of a nuclear explosion. We could be the survivors about to be picked off by mutants arriving from Planet Crogg. Other shapes appear around us. We all seem in a daze, drifting around the ruined walls, looking for a purpose. We sink down inside the Observatory walls and have a coffee. We have three hours daylight to get down. We should make it. That's all that matters. I feel no elation, and my relief is that of a football team that equalises after 89 minutes of effort. I've given everything, only to come out all square.

To my surprise, the path down is clearly marked by statuesque cairns, as big as teenagers, that march in curving lines down the mountain. I had read that careful compass work was required to avoid the gullies that run down sheer from the North Face, but no such problem presents itself. It would be different in a winter white-out I thought. In general, descending is unproblematic for me, particularly when the path is unmistakable. But the adrenaline had gone and my only concern was to avoid arriving at the car in darkness. After such a draining experience, I felt empty and numb.

So it was a shot in the arm to hear a helicopter drumming its guttural way around the mountain. It seemed to be circling us, now bearing down on us with its insistent throb, now backing off into a background hum. We were passed by three men in army fatigues, one of whom was speaking on a walkie-talkie. Suddenly human interaction was all around. Then the noise became regular as the helicopter's yellow chassis came to a hovering halt over our shoulder. We could read the words 'RAF RESCUE'. It hung there, facing down the mountain, before dropping a line with two figures attached.

It might have been a real rescue. But even had it been no more than a routine exercise, still this machine had the power to give me back a sense of proportion. I don't mean that there may have been another human being in far more distess than me, though that was a sobering thought. It was something else. The darkening mountain had been reduced to a backdrop to another drama. It was being drowned out by another voice. It was being upstaged by another presence, one with light and colour. The helicopter had a pulse of pure life which the dead mountain, the 'Malicious Mountain', was powerless to snuff out. And in my robotic state I was given a vicarious sense of reanimation, as if the heart of the helicopter was beating for me, asserting my right to rejoin the drama of the living. And though this drama was staged in a vast outdoor arena, it had an immediacy, an intimacy, a warmth that made me respond to it on a personal level. I felt included in its plot, an extra even, certainly with a seat on the front row at very least. I was being returned to myself through lines of communication from the rest of the living, beating, sensate universe.

The experience sustained me down to the Lochan. As we turned to make the final part of the descent, the rain suddenly set in hard. I closed in on myself again, feeling besieged by the elements, but safe in the knowledge that the end would come soon. Eventually the valley floor started to beckon. By 8.10 we had reached the car. The entire walk had taken us just under 10 hours.

Why did I describe this walk when, on the following day we had glorious weather on the Ring of Steall? Or why did I not describe our experience in The Eastern Mamores two days later when we were driven off the mountains by ferocious winds? Because 'everyone' goes up Ben Nevis, just like everyone goes through life. And, as with one's approach to life, not everyone tackles Ben Nevis in the same way. As with the ups and downs that life brings, so the weather that day brought a mixture of squally rain, sunny intervals, and finally a driving downpour. You're getting the message. I could pursue this analogy, but rather than overegging the cake, I'd be better off picking out a few cherries from the mix.

I'm 53 now and on life's descent. I find it easier and more rewarding than struggling up those academic and career inclines that marked the path of my early years. Perhaps it is simply that some of us are naturally happier and better at descending. If we'd known this when we started our 'climbs', perhaps we'd have been more philosophical about life. Perhaps we would have conserved more of our energies, rather than expend them through worry, pressure, and anxiety. But self-knowledge has to be hard won. Our youthful psyches must have needed battering into some sort of acceptable shape, in order to enjoy and exploit the fruits of ageing. And unless we had put ourselves into top gear and engaged that original drive to overstrain the psyche, we would not have been ourselves at the time, nor would we have been true to ourselves as we were. In other words, given the psyche we had, we were always going to end up like this, unless we'd twisted an ankle, been hit by Hurricane Bill, or fallen down a crevice. Perhaps even then we'd have had something in our rucksack that would have allowed us to carry on. So there's things on the inside, things on the outside, and things in the middle. And around and about these things is morale. Which is where the helicopter comes in.

Sometimes you just get a break on a walk when you need it, something unexpected that lifts your spirits, something meaningless to others but meaningful to you. That in my case it was an 'RAF RESCUE' helicopter adds an element of symbolism. There had been a point on the final climb,during that dizzy spell, when I had really wanted to give up. I kept going, but with no certainty that I could. Seeing that helicopter reminded me that there is recourse in time of need. That recourse either comes from within, from without, or from something in the middle. If our morale can just stay within acceptable limits, then it'll be there somewhere.

So, after some early warnings that life would be a mixture of extremes, the road to adulthood began with an overenthusastic spurt up the slope. Others were around to measure oneself against. There was even a headstart to give a springboard to faster progress. Soon came a time to branch away from the steady stream of life however. Hopes were high, though even then there was some trepidation. Along the way obstacles proved many, sapping the strength whilst giving little reward, for climbing, it was realised, was not a natural gift. Even the descents induced despair, given the reascents to come. Eventually the realisation came that safety had to come first over risk. Even so, a dark hour came before the last ascent. Once on top, there was a measure of qualified relief, more than a flood of pleasure. On the descent, something happened to put everything in context, and a measure of qualified joy was meted out.

After that the story's thin on detail. Perhaps it hasn't been written yet.
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Re: A Life in a Day on Ben Nevis via the Carn Dearg Arête

Postby Paul Webster » Mon Oct 05, 2009 1:35 pm

Nicely written hobitoc. I still start off up steep slopes far too quickly :roll:
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Re: A Life in a Day on Ben Nevis via the Carn Dearg Arête

Postby NevJB » Mon Oct 05, 2009 8:03 pm

I can empathise with your 'ups' and 'downs' dobitoc - lovely account.
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