Ben Nevis via the CMD Arete from the North Face Carpark
by Barnety2000 » Tue Aug 03, 2010 9:58 pm
Route description: Ben Nevis by the Carn Mor Dearg Arete
Munros included on this walk: Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg
Date walked: 10/07/2009
Time taken: 8 hours
Distance: 16 km
Ascent: 1500m4 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
North Face Carpark to the valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn
Leave the North Face Carpark heading SE along a good track towards a coniferous forest, crossing a small stream on a wide concrete bridge. As the track swings abruptly to the left, a small path leaves the main track to the right and starts to climb away to the SW above a golf course. Climb up this path for a short distance, before bearing left on a modern (post-2005) path that rises southward into the heart of the coniferous Leanachan Forest. Follow the path through the dense forest, involving several stages of quite steep ascent. A number of park-type benches are situated en route, should the steep sections be tiring early in the day. Suddenly, the path leads southward out of the forest and you are greeted with the first sight of Ben Nevis in all its glory.
The impossibly steep and dull grey scree-covered western slopes of the Ben rise to the top of Carn Dearg (Ben Nevis’ north-western top), then the vast summit plateau gradually rises south-eastward to the summit of Ben Nevis itself. Approaching the UK’s highest mountain from this aspect also affords an impressive view of the Ben’s North Face. A complex system of solid andesite buttresses and frowning crags glares incredulously at you, soaring high above the valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn. A complete contrast to the impossibly steep yet smooth western and southern slopes of the mountain, and a contrast that walkers on the “Tourist Path” can never fully appreciate. It’s easy to see from here how the mood of the mountain changes in tandom with the typically fickle Lochaber weather.
Continue on the path as it turns to the left (SE) and joins a wider stony track. After a further short distance towards the SE, a stile is reached leading out onto wild countryside and the start of the hanging valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn, already at almost 300 metres altitude.
The valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn to Carn Mor Dearg
The valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn is a splendid example of a hanging U-shaped valley carved by the slow erosive action of a mountain glacier ~10,000 years ago. Even more spectacular is the remote and rugged Coire Leis at the head of the valley. Steep red granite and heather-strewn slopes of the Carn Dearg ridge wall the valley in to the east, rising to the rounded yet bouldery summit of Carn Beag Dearg (Little Red Cairn, 1010m) and the pointed shapely beacons of Carn Dearg Meadhonach (Middle Red Cairn, 1179m) and Carn Mor Dearg (Big Red Cairn, 1220m). All 3 of these summits can be traversed on the route. The steep yet not vertical red slopes of the Carn Dearg ridge contrast starkly with the subvertical, cliffs, crags and corries of Ben Nevis, forming the abrupt southern wall of the valley. Numerous rugged corries, subvertical crevasses and scree shoots are nestled into the cliffs, encompassing thick banks of solid winter snow and ice well into the summer months. Waterfalls and streams issue from the melting snow, feeding crystal clear suspended lochans nestling into the contours above sheer cliffs, accessible only to the well-equipped rock climber. In between, the valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn progressively rises to the head of Coire Leis, becoming increasingly wild, rocky and remote in the upper section, before ending at the base of subvertical cliffs of the CMD arête. The head of this corrie must get some of the worst weather in the Highlands. I have seen torrential rain and low cloud all too frequently battering the head of this corrie and neighbouring Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg, while passing on the A82 to Fort William.
With the use of a map, it is easy to visualise how this landscape looked 10,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum. Hanging mountain glaciers suspended in the valleys of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn and Allt Coire Giubhsachan progressively carved back into the head of their respective corries, underground ice streams efficiently carrying away the eroded rock flour and boulders, depositing this as glacial moraine surrounding and in front of the ice floe. As erosion continued, the watershed between the glaciers became thinner and thinner, resulting in the delicate scythe-like CMD arête, a pleasure for the mountaineer and rock climber during our current interglacial period.
Continue SE up the path, with the foaming ice-cold waters of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn crashing over and around angular granite blocks to your right. This path continues on up alongside the Allt a’ Mhuilinn to the CIC Hut and slightly beyond, where the path fizzles out in the tight confines of wild upper Coire Leis. Therefore the path needs to be vacated at some point, to make the steep climb up onto the Carn Mor Dearg ridge. Whichever route you choose, the way will be relentlessly steep. Some recommend continuing up the valley and ascending extremely steep, in places subvertical, heathery slopes directly to the summit of Carn Dearg Meadhonach, therefore bypassing the top of Carn Beag Dearg. However I would recommend leaving the path earlier and ascending the western slopes of Carn Beag Dearg. Although you are climbing for longer than if you were to ascend directly up to Carn Dearg Meadhonach, the going is nowhere near as steep. Having said that, it’s still a long slog, and if sunny, it’s very easy to get sunburn as you are facing the morning sun all the way up. The climb is rough over heather and scattered granite boulders, boggy in the lower reaches. Higher up, it is possible to pick up bits of rough path hewn out of the hillside and small stalkers paths. The best route involves traversing to the SW (right) of Carn Beag Dearg, and if you pick up one of the stalkers paths, then this will be accomplished successfully. The summit of Carn Beag Dearg can be attained if desired, however the summit is surrounded by large granite blocks, many of them upturned and some of them movable, which can require more effort than it is worth. The best route involves heading directly up to the relatively wide crest of the Carn Dearg ridge just beyond (to the south) of Carn Beag Dearg, where you can follow a marked gulley in the hillside. This is carved by a stream that emanates as a spring from beneath a pile of granite blocks higher up. This is a good place to fill up the water bottles, as there will be no more water throughout the rest of the high ridge walk until the Red Burn is forded, halfway down Ben Nevis on the Tourist Track.
Follow the line of the small stream valley uphill, and then continue ENE once this disappears underground to gain the crest of the Carn Dearg ridge. The vast heavily gullied and grassy western wall of Aonach Mor suddenly pops into view. The eastern face of the Carn Dearg ridge drops away much more steeply than the western face, in a series of subvertical scree slopes and granite crags to the bleak and poorly frequented valley of the Allt Daim far below. To the west the impressive North Face of Ben Nevis fills the view, now running almost parallel with you, 600 metre dark grey cliffs and crags that soar vertically above Coire Leis and the tiny CIC hut. All of the corries are displayed in their full splendour. Coire na Ciste in particular is a wonderful complex tangle of rock, snow and water, all coming together temporarily on a subhorizontal gradient before pouring over the lip of the corrie and plunging hundreds of dizzying meters to the rocky valley floor. Tower ridge rises majestically up from the Douglas Boulder in Coire Leis, and on a fine day it is a common sight to see rock climbers complete with ropes, helmets and axes, inching their way carefully and painstakingly up the rugged crest. Some people like the challenge of tackling a different, tricky or unusual route to the summit of the mountain, and others like to take the easiest and most convenient route just to see the view at the top. I would say I am somewhere in-between, liking to differ from the usual route with a mild challenge, however without the patience to contemplate rock climbing up a long high ridge, dangling precariously on a rope. Everyone is different.
Impressive banks of muddy snow often still cling to the east face of the Carn Dearg ridge in late June, and these only become larger and more extensive heading south towards Carn Mor Dearg. Continue SSE along the crest of the ridge, which involves easy walking over small blocks of rubbly granite. An unnamed top is reached next. Beyond this, a small descent then climb leads to the summit cairn of Carn Dearg Meadhonach (1179 metres).
The impressive feature of Carn Dearg Meadhonach is the jagged east ridge, which falls away from the summit in a series of pinnacles surrounded by subvertical granite crags. An exciting alternative ridge route to the Carn Dearg ridge from the valley of the Allt Daim, however a rope may be required for extra security. The east ridge of Carn Mor Dearg is a much easier option when arriving from the east. From the summit of Carn Dearg Meadhonach the view starts to open up to the south, and Carn Mor Dearg appears in centre view for the first time whilst walking along the Carn Dearg ridge. The pointed peak rises up straight ahead, vast snow slopes often hugging into the spacious NE-facing corrie enclosed by the Carn Dearg ridge, the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, and its east ridge. Beyond, the CMD arête comes into view, twisting away from Carn Mor Dearg and curving around the head of Coire Leis to the boulder field beneath the summit of Ben Nevis.
Descend from Carn Dearg Meadhonach on a relatively easy gradient to the rocky low section beneath the final moderately steep climb over granite rubble to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, keeping to the relatively wide crest for fine views to the east and west. Attractive euhedral clear quartz crystals can be found in the granite between Carn Dearg Meadhonach and Carn Mor Dearg, and small samples are worth taking home as a souvenir of the walk.
Take a break at the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, bring out the scotch roll, pineapple cake, Irn Bru and ice-cold mountain spring water, admiring the fine views. Look down the granite east ridge to the vast western wall of the Aonach Mor-Aonach Beag ridge. The bealach between the two Munros acts as a point of weakness in the otherwise strong and resistant ridge, through which the twisting line of the Grey Corries appears, poorly vegetated in contrast to the grassy yet higher Aonach Ridge at close hand. Southward, the Carn Dearg ridge drops abruptly then narrows to the rocky granite crest of the CMD arête, guarded by subvertical and vertical drops into Coire Leis and Coire Giubhsachan, though rarely both at the same time; a relief for those wishing to have some respite from the exposure. Beyond, the magnificent Mamore Range rises up along the southern margin of Glen Nevis. The blunt cone of Binnein Beag stands low in contrast to the immense bulk and pointed summit of Binnein Mor, fully asserting itself as the highest peak in the range. Steep grassy slopes rise to the tiny pointed summits of An Gearanach, An Garbanach and Am Bodach. The impressive glacially sculpted north face of the immense quartzite bulk of Sgurr a’ Mhaim stares at you from the 2nd highest but maybe most attractive mountain in the range. High buttresses and crags burst from the tiny pointed quartzite summit of Stob Ban, offering numerous possibilities for the rock climber. The only peak missing is that of the grassy and rounded Mullach nan Coirean, but she will appear in due course. Across the opposite side of Coire Leis, the cliffs of Ben Nevis frown at you, the steep ridge of North-East Buttress attempting to reach out towards you across the glen. The small summit can be very bleak in bad weather, however in settled weather it’s a delight. The very top of Carn Mor Dearg can also not hold many people, and fortunately except for those rare summer days of extreme clarity, it is quite normal to find that you are the only person on the summit and can enjoy it entirely to yourself.
The CMD arête to Ben Nevis
Now descend south along the crest from Carn Mor Dearg on granite slabs and rubble, some of which slides underneath the feet requiring care. After a short spell of descent the ridge suddenly narrows to a sharp arête and the gradient slackens off. The crest of the arete is composed of solid upstanding granite blocks, offering excellent grip in dry calm weather and a delightful scramble amongst scenery of a magnificence hard to match in the rest of the British Isles. For some, keeping to the very top may be vertigo inducing, and bits of faint scree path frequently accompany the most exposed parts of the arête on the SE limb, high above the valley of the Allt Coire Giubhsachan. This scree path can be rather slippery however as it meanders up and down along the steep SE wall of the arête and is not continuous, resurfacing fairly frequently at the top of the ridge once the main exposed sections have been passed. Thus at least some of the arête has to be traversed at or near the top.
The first section heading due south is perhaps one of the trickiest, and relatively easy scrambling is involved right from the outset. For those with long legs like myself, the clambering up and down, around and across large solid granite boulders is easy and comparatively effortless to someone of a shorter height or build. In calm dry weather, and if time is taken, then the traverse is a delight. The crest really is one-way traffic, and on a busy day (maybe as many as 11 or 12 walkers on the long ridge at the same time), you may encounter several people on the ridge- most picking their way along from Carn Mor Dearg towards Ben Nevis, however a lesser number also doing the route in reverse.
Soon the arête turns towards the SW and starts to curve gracefully around the head of Coire Leis. As the ridge turns, so the scrambling eases and keeping to the crest involves more of an exposed walk, rather than a scramble. A steep subvertical drop abuts the ridge to the right, as the granite walls plunge ~150 metres into the rugged head of Coire Leis. This really is a fine spot. From here you can gaze straight down the hanging U-shaped valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn between Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis, probably one of the wettest valleys in the Highlands! Upper Coire Leis at the head of this valley is a particularly high altitude remote spot, with rugged scree-covered topography maintaining residual winter snow well into the summer months, and holding a remote lochan nestling into the granitic contours 150 metres below. Originating amongst the screes at the head of Coire Leis, the Allt a’ Mhuilinn carves a rocky course north-westward through a heather and boulder strewn topography towards the open valley of the Great Glen. The dark grey brooding cliffs of Ben Nevis rise straight above to the west, becoming ever closer and more imposing as you make progress along the arête. Meanwhile to the south, grassy slopes drop away abruptly to the largely hidden grassy tranquillity of Glen Nevis far below, across the opposite side of which the two Binneins, An Gearanach, Sgurr a’ Mhaim and Stob Ban dominate the scene.
Walk along the crest of the ridge on flattened granite slabs and patchy grass to the low point (still over 1000 metres altitude), where you can look straight down the centre of Coire Leis and the valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn, and trace your route back along the tortuous rugged crest of the granite ridge to the pyramidal summit of Carn Mor Dearg.
The arête starts to climb again past the lowest point, along with a section of more committed scrambling to keep to the very crest. Again a path runs almost parallel to the crest on the SE side, avoiding some of the exposure (you only have a steep drop on one side, as opposed to two!). Following this, the crest narrows to a granite rock bridge ~1 metre wide. In dry weather, and if heights aren’t a problem, a quick walk across can complete this ~8 metre stretch in no time. The granite gives good grip, however this could be unnerving if there is any wind blowing at this point, as the ridge falls away steeply to either side and slithering along on the bum may be the best option in windy or wet weather. Mind you, I would strongly advise against even starting this ridge in high winds, heavy rain and poor visibility! For many, this section will pose no problems, and in no time you will arrive at a bizarre triangular-shaped sign hewn into the granite on the crest, indicating the start of a line of abseil posts marking a possible descent down the headwall into Coire Leis if the party has a rope. Useful perhaps in deteriorating weather conditions or failing light, but no more than a point of interest in good weather conditions, when the spacious panorama from the summit of Ben Nevis awaits. These abseil posts also mark the end of the CMD arête, as abruptly past the sign, the ridge suddenly widens and ends at the base of a steep boulder slope. The rock also suddenly changes beneath the feet from one volcanic rock to another- from red granite to grey andesite.
Continue on steeply through a litter of uneven boulders, some of which move beneath the feet. A faint paler coloured path marks a route up through the boulders; otherwise you can pick your own route. Be careful not to stray to the right (north) of the path, as steep cliffs plunge vertically into Coire Leis, often holding large iced snow cornices well into summer. Even in early July 2009, huge banks of solid snow still remained on the steep slopes to the right on the lower part of the boulder field, dripping as a progressive thaw was in progress. Perched directly beneath the cliffs supporting the vast summit plateau of Ben Nevis, this spot seems to be a particularly cold hollow in winter and summer alike. A chill went down the spine when venturing along the wet cliff-face clad with moss to inspect the snow. The section up the boulder field is particularly tricky under snow, as a slip here could propel you to the base of Coire Leis. Fatal accidents have occurred here in the past, highlighting the danger.
The summit of the UK’s highest mountain appears suddenly as the steep slope of the boulder field eases off. Relief crosses the face as the obscenely large trig point, rescue centre and numerous other ruins and memorials come into view. On a fine summers day you can expect to see hoards of people at the top, maybe as many as 10 times the number you have seen so far on the walk; many clustered around the summit cairn and ruins eating lunch, and some peering incredulously over the northern cliff edge at the Allt a’ Mhuilinn far below. The summit of Ben Nevis does indeed afford a fine panorama, and I hope the attached photos do it justice. I have more fully described the view in another Walk Diary, The Ultimate Ridge Route to Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg.
A fine place to have a spot of lunch, especially if you head away from the summit cairn to the more secluded northern or southern edges of the summit plateau, and admire the view while perched (often uncomfortably) on an angular boulder of andesite. Immense snow cornices are often preserved in Gardyloo Gulley well into the summer, which cuts quite far into the plateau and precariously close to the main Tourist Path up the mountain. Commonly in May and June, thick wedges of snow line the entire northern rim of the plateau and sometimes overhang it, so no-one should ever venture out onto them.
Descending from Ben Nevis back to North Face Carpark
Now the descent involves returning down the Tourist Path to the Half Way Lochan, at an altitude of 550 metres. The Tourist Path heads west along the summit plateau, descending in stages, then cuts down the steep western face of the mountain, a series of large zigzags removing some of the strain but hard on the knees nonetheless. Lower down, the path cuts beneath an impressive waterfall of the Red Burn, a chance to fill up the water bottles after all the high altitude walking.
Once down near the Halfway Lochan, the Tourist Track turns abruptly left and further down descends the western slopes of Meall an t-Suidhe in a series of zigzags. Our route back to the North Face Carpark heads straight on ahead however, due north and parallel with the Halfway Lochan. Further on, bear left where the path splits to end up at the far (northern) end of the Halfway Lochan, where the path fizzles out at the tributary which drains the lochan and heads downhill towards the Allt a’ Mhuilinn. The path to the right heads back up the valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn to Coire Leis and the CIC Hut, a base for mountain climbers.
Once our path finishes, head due north over rough and heathery ground, boggy in places, towards the Allt a’ Mhuilinn. There is no clear path for this section of the walk, however bits and pieces can be found which tend to soon fizzle out. Simply head towards the Allt a’ Mhuilinn, crashing over rocks in the centre of the valley ahead.
Once you arrive, the river has to be forded. When the level is low, it is often possible to find a place where you have sufficient stepping stones to keep your feet dry- beware though for rocks that move when you put your weight on them! If the river level is higher, then a cold icy paddle across a shallower section of the river may be necessary- an ideal point to bathe those tired and sweaty feet.
Clamber up the northern bank, and locate a path just to your north, which has descended from high up in Coire Leis. This is the path you walked up earlier before turning off towards Carn Beag Dearg further up. Now you are basically following your outward route back to the start.
Continue on this path NW parallel with the Allt a’ Mhuilinn, cross a stile, and continue NW for a short section on a good track. Bear right on a path heading towards the North Face Carpark into coniferous woodland of Leanachan Forest, and follow this path steeply (and very tiring on the knees) through the dense forest. The path eventually joins another, bear right and head north for a short distance until the path emerges at a wide track. Turn left and arrive in a short distance at the North Face Carpark, your point of departure.
by kevsbald » Wed Aug 04, 2010 10:11 am
But Ben Nevis glaring 'incredulously'?
by kinley » Wed Aug 04, 2010 5:40 pm
Your distance is a bit short - it's about 16km
by Barnety2000 » Wed Aug 04, 2010 7:35 pm
Kevsbald- maybe incredulously wasn't quite the right word...
by skuk007 » Wed Aug 04, 2010 10:00 pm
by pressendye » Sat Aug 07, 2010 11:01 pm
- Posts: 1
- Joined: Aug 7, 2010
by Lottie » Tue Aug 31, 2010 11:28 pm
by Barnety2000 » Fri Sep 03, 2010 7:00 pm
The walk is an amazing one, just make sure you pick a day with good weather! They are rather hard to come by in that part of the world, but May or June may well be your best bet. Although wish I was up there now as last week was pretty amazing!
If you would like a variation to the standard route, I have also described in my walk's diary a route through Glen Nevis, Coire Giubhsachan and up the east ridge of Carn Mor Dearg. This is a longer walk and starts and ends in a different place, but relieves some of the relentless subvertical climb onto the Carn Mor Dearg ridge. I am hoping to combine this with the Aonachs next year and do all 4 in a day
by kw1980 » Fri Sep 03, 2010 8:06 pm
by houdi » Mon Sep 06, 2010 4:11 pm
From this, you will gather that you do not have to take the CNC path very far round into the valley. You need to head down and cross the Alt a' Mhuillin at a point somewhere opposite the gully I have mentioned. And bear in mind that the path is quite vague in some places lower down, particularly at the top of the scree before it joins the gully. Hope this is of some help?
by Barnety2000 » Mon Sep 06, 2010 7:47 pm
by houdi » Mon Sep 06, 2010 10:05 pm
by Barnety2000 » Mon Sep 06, 2010 11:05 pm
by Jock McJock » Wed Sep 08, 2010 8:33 am