Dave MacLeod, one of the UK's top climbers, has an intimate knowledge of Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain. A winter climbing paradise, Dave has already given UKClimbing.com the benefit of his icy knowledge in his previous article:
Here he extols the virtues of Ben Nevis in summer. The huge rock walls of this great mountain offer countless exquisite days out, from desperate extreme routes to long mountain rambles on perfect ridges.
If you want to know more about Ben Nevis in summer - read on:
Our highest mountain, our "only alpine mountain" and one with perhaps the richest history of climbing of any place in the UK; Ben Nevis is as big as it gets in the UK in many ways. But although its scale is often the first detail mentioned about the mountain, it is really the nature of the place and it's climbs that stand out most. Jimmy Marshall summed it up; "Hard to equal for hidden depths of character".
These hidden depths, quite literally offer new discoveries every time you climb there by virtue of the array of coires, buttresses and huge ridges that form its north east face. I can't imagine the feeling of anticipation on emerging from the CIC hut door on a sunny morning and taking in the full vista of grand cliffs ever fading.
With nearly 120 years of ground breaking routes and legendary stories of bravery on the cliffs, there is a fair bit of history related to the exploration of Ben Nevis, both in winter and the summer. Ken Crocket's superbly researched book 'Ben Nevis' is an excellent and inspiring chronicle of the highlights of these many adventures through the ages as the sport, culture, standards and approaches to climbing evolved.
The great ridges were the first lines to fall in the Victorian era to the likes of Norman Collie and Harold Raeburn. The building of the CIC mountain hut under the north face cliffs in the late 1920s was certainly a catalyst in fuelling the exploration of the mountain and the collaboration of great climbers through the ensuing decades. But one climber who stood out for me was Brian Kellet, a conscientious objector who climbed solo and alone after work during the mid 40s. An enigma even to his peers from reading their accounts of him, he survived two horrific falls on Ben Nevis before finally meeting his end while attempting another route. Modern day exploration was undertaken initially by the big names of Tom Patey, Jimmy Marshall, Robin Smith and Dougal Haston who all made their mark climbing classic lines such as The Bullroar and The Bat on Carn Dearg buttress, with the other plum lines of Sassenach and Centurion falling to Joe Brown and Don Whillans. Standards rose again towards and after the millennium with Agrippa to Pete Whillance and The Wicked (E6 6b) to Gary Latter and Rick Campbell. Personally I cannot see an end to this development with many big unclimbed pieces of rock remaining, demonstrated by my - in July 2008 - ascent of Echo Wall (E10+?) which is among the hardest trad routes in the world at present and brings the Ben's summertime rock climbing history bang up-to-date.
The rock climbing on Ben Nevis fits nicely into four categories:
The Great Ridges
Alpine in stature, imposing and elegant in appearance, the four great ridges of the Ben are superb experiences to climb. Castle Ridge (Moderate) is the shortest at 270m and the easiest. Observatory Ridge (VDiff) and the imposing skyline of North East Buttress (VDiff) at 400 metres long look and feel more like rock climbs than scrambles. But Tower Ridge (Diff) at 600 metres long really stands out as possibly the most scenic and interesting way to the summit of Ben Nevis. These are big undertakings for novice parties, often underestimated. But for the prepared they are pure pleasure moving over endless good rock past ever more dramatic rock features.
Carn Dearg Buttress
As Gary Latter puts it in his guide, Carn Dearg is the 'showpiece cliff' of the north face, especially as it's clean square cut slabs and walls catch the morning sun as you approach up the Allt a' Mhuillin. Apart from the interesting scramble of Ledge Route going 450 metres to the plateau, most of the climbs are 6-10 pitches long on excellent clean rock.
Route II Direct (Severe 4a) - Great positions for the grade and committing.
The Bullroar (HVS 5a) - Amazing positions and immaculate rock.
Torro (E2 5c) - More difficult slab climbing but just as good as Bullroar.
Centurion (HVS 5a) - The massive imposing corner system, and most popular way up the face.
The Bat (E2 5b) - Immortalised in the classic film
Titan's Wall (E3 6a) - Massive and brilliant wall pitch, good value at E3!
No match for climb name:Trajans Column (E6 6b) - The modern classic on the steepest ground on offer here.
The Orion Face
The 400mhigh face flanking North East Buttress is the first to catch your eye (see The Ridges) from the glen floor and offers long alpine multipitch routes set at a relatively easy angle. Considering the quality and scale of these routes they are amazingly quiet.
Raeburn's Arete (Severe 4a) - Lovely rock and sublime in the glow of the evening sun.
Minus One Direct (E1 5b) - Been suggested as the finest of it's grade in the country.
The Long Climb (VS 4c) - The clue is in the name, committing stuff. At 425 metres its the longest face climb in mainland UK.
The Rest of the Mountain
The seemingly endless cliffs stretching between the great ridges offer a lifetime of climbs of all types to explore for the Ben enthusiast or even the new router. But for the visitor it's really a shame only to climb on the Orion Face or Carn Dearg Buttress. It's really worth seeking out the less known quality routes, and solitude is virtually guaranteed.
Sioux Wall(HVS 5a) - Good rock in among nice rock scenery and peaceful surroundings.
Strident Edge(VS 4c) - This striking arete looks way harder than VS!
1944 Route(Severe 4a) - A very interesting journey of Kellets. Imagine him soloing the first ascent back then!
Echo Wall(E10+)- The hardest trad route in the UK and a stunning piece of rock.
Photo Gallery - Ben Nevis in Summer
When to Go
Usually a hot spell in May signals the first opportunity to get onto Carn Dearg. But snow will still be melting down Orion Face and lingering high on the great ridges until June most seasons. In general it's best to go up during a decent warm summer high pressure. September is already starting to get a bit cold with snow not far away again. If the weather has been generally dry, a day or two of rain will only take the same to dry off the routes, but some weeps do linger after prolonged wet weather, so keep an eye on what's happening in advance of your visit. There are some exceptions like Raeburn's Arete and Strident Edge that dry quickly. A look at Orion Face with binoculars from Torlundy will give you a good sense of how dry the mountain is in general.
How to Get There
Fort William is the main hub, right at the foot of the mountain, and is reached via the A82 which is a drag to drive in summer. North of Fort William, on the A82 towards Inverness, turn off at Torlundy with signs to the North Face Car Park. From here a well built path leads in a 90 minutes to the CIC hit underneath the cliffs. Allow another half hour at least to the base of the crags.
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If you get the opportunity, staying in the CIC hut is a wonderful experience not to be missed. The hut is privately run by the SMC but allows access to affiliated clubs and is not as exclusive as is often thought. Visit the SMC site for more info [www.smc.org.uk]. Otherwise there are many options in and around Fort William which is well geared up for visitors. Hundreds of B&Bs, quite a few hostels and several campsites are available. The outdoor capital site is a good place to start research [www.outdoorcapital.co.uk] But a good recommendation for affordable rooms is Alan Kimber's place Calluna. Alan is a well known local guide and is one of the best sources of info on Nevis routes and latest conditions. His climbing wall is another perk of staying at Calluna.
Two 60 metre ropes are a good idea in case you need to do a lot of abseils if the weather turns bad high on a route. Plenty of cord and some old wires will come in very handy if this happens. Otherwise a normal trad rack of wires and cams is fine. A head torch and Gore-Tex jacket could become very important too if you have an epic. Some slower parties even take (and use!) Bivvy gear. Summer rescues from high on North-East Buttress, The Long Climb and Tower Ridge are depressingly common. You don't want it to be you.
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Food and Supplies
Fort William has everything you'll need. The biggest supermarket is Morrison's in the centre of the town and nearby is Nevisport and Ellis Brigham's outdoor stores. For wet weather cafes Cafe Beag in Glen Nevis, Lochaber Farm Shop at Nevis Range, The Sidings in the train station, and Fired Art at the far end of the High Street are all excellent. A big day on the Ben is a fine way to develop a voracious appetite, and the best places to go to sort this out are The Ben Nevis Inn at Achintee (good place and food but sometimes a bit slow and very busy on weekends), The Grog and Gruel (Good food but a busy place), and the Indian Garden on the High Street does the best curry around. If you have to hit the road and head south then the chip shop in Inverlochy just north of the Glen Nevis roundabout is much better than the two in town. Many folk who are driving south after a day on the Ben will get an hour's driving in and then stop at the superb Real Food Cafe at Tyndrum, which really shows the way for fast food and is open until 10pm every night.
Believe it or not Fort William is even better suited to other sports than climbing, with world class mountain biking, kayaking and walking all around. If you are just looking for a walk then Steall Falls at the top of Glen Nevis is the local 'must see'. 'The Fort' is also an excellent base for exploring other parts of the western highlands and islands.
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There is the excellent 2002 SMC Ben Nevis guidebook, which covers both rock and ice climbs in comprehensive detail.
There are also the superb selected Scottish Rock guides, which are a great choice for a visiting climber and cover the whole of Scotland in two volumes. Their modern, full colour photo topos are top notch and the books really open a window on Scottish climbing. Scottish Rock Volume 1 (South) covers Ben Nevis as well as giving all the lowland cragging options in case of bad weather.
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- Ben Nevis Winter 19 Nov, 2009
- Ben Nevis Britain's Highest Mountain 18 Nov, 2009
- Relocate: Fort William 5 Jul, 2009
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