In my younger days the path from the North Face car park up to the North Face of Ben Nevis was, frankly, wretched. These days, whilst quite steep in places, the walk in to the head of the Allt a’ Mhuilin takes 30 minutes.
Tick tick tick my poles set me off metronomically on the walk in. The local guides have the ability to drive to the head of the Allt a’ Mhuilin, saving their legs. I walked a bit of the way in behind an MIC and his client.
Branching left i headed on the long climb to the start of the Carn Mor Dearg arete. Thankfully the freezing level had descended last night so the bog trotting in was short lived. On on on. The temperature was falling and the weather was not good. Very cold and wind blown snow. I saw nobody ahead of me. I did see one set of footprints heading up. I followed them. After twenty minutes i noticed they had changed. I was following the prints of a hare. On and on i climbed, stopping briefly to replace my windshirt with a “proper” waterproof jacket and don my crampons. The wind howled.
After the first two false summits i got on to the beginnings of the arete. Large cornices hung on my left. The ground required focus and, whilst not that steep, the wind tried to shove me out of the way. The arete narrowed and became technical. I could neither see nor hear another soul. Yesterdays heavy rain had fallen as snow up here. Walk. Edge. Hook axe. Pivot round. Balance. Move. Safety is paramount but speed is essential. The weather began to clear for fifteen minutes. I could see Fort William behind me, and occasional glimpses of the massive North Face to my right. The upper ski lifts on Aonach Mor to my left sat still.
There were three places where the blown and frozen snow had narrowed the arete to less than the width of my boot. About 500ft drop left and right. Prod the snow. Make a decision in under five seconds upon which my life depends. Brace. Go. Sigh of relief. Move on. A three dimensional jigsaw. Get a piece wrong and you fall. Focus. Absolute.
I could glimpse the CIC way below me. I began to climb up the final part of the arete to the summit of Britain. The snow was horrendous. Its nature changed every few paces. Squeak. Dinner plate crack. The whoommf of windslab. I stuck to long stretches of ice and front pointed up. A gargantuan cornice to my right.
Up. Tired now. Legs ache. Up. Up. In the whiteness i see a pole. One of the markers. Bingo. I’m about 7 of these from the summit plateau. Up and up. Head beginning to play tricks. Alone in almost complete whiteness for 2 hours now.
My legs tell me i’m not climbing anymore. Relative flat. Heart rate eases. A small cairn. Something fifty metres away that has shape. The top of Britain. Cross check. If it is the summit then the emergency shelter should be 5 or 6 metres away. I can’t see that far. Compass. Southish. Paces. Boom. A metal door about 2 metre above my head. I know where I am. Wuick photo. Very very cold. Here comes the wind. This time it flicks a million graupel particles a minute up and fires them in my eyes. My goggles lay uselessly forgotten back in the chalet. Stupid.
I need to get off this mountain. With all the great gear and modern stuff, man still isn’t meant to stay here in the middle of a storm in winter.
Down on one knee. Map. Compass. Bearing. Go. Keep going. Keep checking. The biggest mountain cliffs in Britain are a few metres to my left. Cloud clears for 10 seconds and i see cornices like waves.
My legs tell me i’m descending. Map. Compass. Go. Something in the distance. Humans. Other forms of life. Phew. I’m on the shoulder of the Ben, at the top of the zig zags. In this snow i can head straight down. Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe aka the half way Lochan should be 1000ft below me just to my right. Down. Down. Down. Sky clears and the Lochan appears. Relief.
Navigating in zero visibility in terrain where a mistake of even ten metres can kill you, is demanding. Mentally tired. Bang on with my nav. A smile breaks across my weather battered face.
Down. Down. The evening sun catches the lochan. I turn right / North West here and head back to the Allt a’ Mhuilin. Sliding down snow covered heather. Back to the track i was on 6 hours ago.
Back down the new oath to the car. Poles braking tired legs. It begins to rain and through the forest i can see evening light play across the town and Loch Linnhe.
Back to the car. I am safe now.
Perspective: For the last hour of my walk off the buzz of the Bell rescue helicopter has been overhead. The search continues for 2 climbers missing since the weekend. Conditions are dire. Mountaineers from rescue teams across the land giving up their day jobs to volunteer on the search. To find clues and answers for parents and families.
Taking risks in the high mountains in winter fires the soul. It demands everything. Occasionally it takes everything.
I sit by Loch Linnhe in the evening sun writing this. Rest the legs. Sharpen the axes and the mind. Go again tomorrow.