Seeking perfection on an ambitious three-day journey to reach Ben Nevis
This feature was first published in The Great Outdoors magazine, January 2017
Between 2008 to 2011, I lived in Lochaber. I don’t live there any more. Now I make visits north, losing the weather lottery more often than not. Sometimes I find myself wondering if all my greatest adventures in the Scottish mountains are behind me, but very occasionally I’m permitted one of those rare glimpses of perfection that have inspired me for all of my adult life.
I first started dreaming about the Lochaber Traverse when I was a teenager. ‘Walk the entire ridge from the Grey Corries to Ben Nevis!’ the magazine headline said. Great, I thought, not really comprehending the majesty and beauty promised by those words. My first attempt didn’t go well. It was only my second trip to Scotland, and I planned to approach the Grey Corries from the south, hiking in through Glen Nevis with a friend. Our rucksacks were too heavy, my friend fell over crossing a river and broke her ankle, and… well, the less said about our ignominious retreat the better. Subsequent attempts were no more successful, although I must have walked every section of the ridge on individual outings over the years. Each time I had to turn back before the next section I would look ahead, sigh, and think one day.
The sign of the eagle
I’d hardly dared to believe the good forecast on the run up to that week. I had a few days spare and thought I’d head to the Cairngorms, until I saw a tweet from a friend with a picture of Ben Nevis looking spectacular. I knew immediately where I’d be heading.
The walk in from Spean Bridge couldn’t have been more different from the last time I’d headed along that track to the Lairig Leacach bothy, fighting wind and rain. The mountains ahead glared white in the sunshine and I soon found myself stripping down to my shirtsleeves. Although I’d tried hard to keep my pack as light as possible, it was still a winter pack, laden down with axe, crampons, and extra warm clothing I hadn’t needed for summer backpacking – and I could feel every kilo as I plodded up the endless northern slopes of Stob Choire Claurigh. For a couple of hours I kept my head down and concentrated on gaining height, finding the best way up featureless heather, stringing together the driest route between vertical bogs.
Then I arrived at the 958m top of Stob Coire Gaibhre, and balanced on the rocky edge, feeling the pull of the gulf at my feet. From below, riding a thermal like a meteor, an eagle burst over the crest and I felt its backdraft waft my hair as it soared high above me and turned its wings to catch the sun. I followed it with my gaze, squinting, until it dipped once again and drew my vision to the dazzling panorama of snow all around me.
I’d been so focused on the uphill slog I hadn’t paused to think about where I was, about what I was finally doing. But now I was entirely present, entirely in the moment. This wasn’t just a childhood dream any more. ‘I’m here,’ I said to myself aloud, and a pulse of emotion rose up through my chest. For so long since leaving Scotland I’d secretly believed that my future trips would be a pale shadow of my old adventures, that it would never be the same again. Maybe I still didn’t believe it. Maybe something would go wrong and I’d have to turn back, like so many times before.
Forcing the emotions aside, I started to think about my first challenge: where to camp. The afternoon was rapidly turning to evening, and although the snow reflected friendly sunshine, I still didn’t quite trust that perfect forecast. After kicking steps uphill for another thirty minutes I reached the flat north summit of the mountain and decided this would be the place. My shelter, an ultralight tarp pitched on a stamped-down snow platform, was an insubstantial refuge in such a high, wild place, but I had a good feeling about this camp.
The music of the spheres
I woke at about midnight to penetrating silence. Wriggling in my bivy bag to get the circulation going, I peered out of the open entrance to my tarp and saw a bright moon blazing down on the Lochaber Traverse, etching every ridge, peak and pinnacle in sharp relief against a field of stars. In the far distance, Ben Nevis stood above all the rest, glinting like a diamond.
It wasn’t particularly cold. I’d been snug in my three-season bag, and when I left my tiny shelter I found the snow had only just started to crisp up again. My long-exposure photo of a moonlit landscape failed to inspire, and I was about to press ‘delete’ on the camera when I noticed a green tinge in the corner of the frame. That’s when I looked north, across the darkness of Glen Spean, and saw the aurora.
A ribbon of green light danced above the horizon. I watched it, bewitched, for a moment before even comprehending what it was. I had never seen the aurora with my own eyes before. Then a flare jetted up towards the crown of the sky and I scrambled to attach my camera back on the tripod, change the shutter speed and adjust ISO.
As I watched those ghostly lights flicker over the landscape, I forgot who I was and why I was there. For twenty minutes I just watched and listened, absorbed in this most capricious of Scotland’s natural wonders.
The endless ridge
My crampons bit into the newly firmed névé with that satisfying crunch. Prodding with the spike of my axe, keeping an eye out for verglas on the rocky sections, I crept along the ridge of the Grey Corries, occasionally stopping to marvel at the incredible view.
The Grey Corries always give a good day out, even when the weather’s bad. I’d been up here a few times before, and knew most of the twists and turns in the ridge, but I’d never seen it this good. Down in Glen Nevis, a layer of cloud reflected the rays of the rising sun. Up here in the clear air, I was already starting to cook in my waterproof jacket; it had started to feel a bit like a day in the Alps. But I had no intention of hurrying. This was no 24-hour challenge. I wanted to stay up here another night, savour the experience I’d anticipated for so long.
The snow softened rapidly. By the time I reached the end of the Grey Corries and found myself looking ahead at the great obstacle of my route, the steep snow face of Stob Coire Bhealaich, I had become concerned about avalanches in the heat. Warned against taking on the obvious ridge dead ahead, there were only two choices here: climb left up a snow face beneath drooping cornices, or traverse far to the left and try to find an easier way up. I chose to follow a line of steps directly up the Grade I face, aiming for a notch in the ridge where the cornices had already fallen and now lay in vast, melting blocks half a mile below. It was a nervy climb. Those cornices to my left looked more like Alpine seracs, ten metres high and dripping with water, separating from the mountain with a monster crevasse behind. But I made the ascent safely.
On the summit of Aonach Beag I met TGO contributor Dan Bailey, doing the ridge from the other direction. We compared notes and I showed him my photo of the aurora. He had come from the busy northern cliffs of Ben Nevis; I’d come from solitude and silence. ‘Maybe I’ll see the aurora tonight,’ Dan said, wistfully peering north. ‘I’m bivying on one of the Grey Corries summits.’ I wished him luck and continued on my way.
By the time I made the rough descent to the west of Aonach Beag, the sun had dropped beneath the shoulder of Carn Mor Dearg and it was time to camp. This time I pitched on grass, but any lingering concerns about the weather had evaporated – in these benign conditions, my little tarp would be more than good enough. I drifted to sleep dreaming of Ben Nevis and my final day to come. I know Ben Nevis well, and worried that it would be an anticlimax. How could it possibly be any better than the day I’d just had?
The final dance
Getting up early enough was a bit of a struggle. My breath frosted the underside of my tarp, and I’d had to put all my warm clothes on overnight. It’s always tempting to wait until the sun strikes your shelter, but I didn’t have that luxury: if I wanted to catch my bus from Fort William that afternoon I had to get a move on.
Last time I’d climbed the East Ridge of Carn Mor Dearg it had been May, and the lower slopes had been exposed boulders. This time steep, iron-hard snow guarded my passage to Ben Nevis. I assessed the slopes as I might assess an Alpine ridge, looking for weaknesses, wary of rockfall from the sun-soaked cliffs above. Then I began to climb, flat-footing at first then front-pointing as the angle steepened. It was hard work with my heavy pack but I yearned to break out of the icy shade and into the sunshine.
Those final few metres to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg were exhausting. Crampons scraped on rock with one footstep, then my boot would sink up to my knee in soft snow with the next. Every step felt like a struggle until the ridge suddenly levelled off and I found myself confronted with the massive bulk of Ben Nevis’s North Face.
Morning light picked out every feature on the finest mountain wall in the UK. I looked down on gullies where, years before, I’d struggled with steep ice and cornices. I traced my old favourite climbs of Tower Ridge and NE Buttress, and for the first time since moving away from Scotland I realised that nothing had really changed – that these few precious days of hard work and unparalleled perfection would rank amongst the very best I’d ever spent in the Scottish hills. When I stepped onto the CMD Arête, too early for the crowds, I danced along the fabled tightrope knowing that I’d been blessed once again. And the views from the plateau of Ben Nevis were more spellbinding than I had seen them in a decade, with a vast cloud inversion stretching across the Highlands in all directions.
I spoke to early birds coming up the pony track. Nobody could believe I was heading down; that this was merely the final stage of my greater traverse. But every person I met shared my joy at this most beautiful of winter days.
If experiences like these were commonplace, they’d get boring fast. I would not want every outing to be accompanied by blue sky, temperature inversions and aurora. Storms are special too. But my dream of perfection waited ten years for the stars to align, and I’m glad I held back. Sometimes, when the weather is miserable time after time and you begin to lose the faith, it’s great to be reminded of the very best that the Scottish mountains can offer.
About the route
Distance: 37.27km / 23.16 miles
Starting point: Spean Bridge
Finishing point: Fort William
Highest point: 1,344m, summit of Ben Nevis
Total ascent: 2,945m
OS map sheets: Landranger 41 / Explorer 392
Munros climbed: Stob Choire Claurigh, Stob Coire an Laoigh, Sgurr Choinnich Mor, Aonach Beag, Carn Mor Dearg, Ben Nevis
Route notes: This is a difficult route in winter, with long sections of exposed ridge, potential danger from cornices, and unavoidable sections of Grade I winter climbing. A one-day traverse in winter is a major test of fitness and likely to be possible only in the very best conditions. You should carry camping gear suitable for the conditions and be prepared to use it.
All images © Alex Roddie & All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.