Sea level start : 1220 m ascent or 4,000 feet; distance; 6km to summit; 3 hours to top approx.
Start: North Face car park at Torlundy, north of Fort William.
This great monolith of a mountain offers the most fantastic views of the UK’s highest mountain and it’s finest aspect – its Alpine-like North Face cliffs. CMD translates as the Big Red Cairn and it is also connected to The Ben by a famous ridge, the Carn Mor Dearg arête. Too sharp for me but our walking companions, my son Gregor and his wife Lucy, intrepid Munro baggers with seriously good heads for heights and of course, the mountain goat nimbleness of young people! – did it without blinking an eye.
It was a last minute arrangement to climb the hill, as Chris and I had been wild camping in Ardgour at a favourite spot, otter watching and generally having a rather relaxed, lovely time which included the Isle of Mull too.
But the forecast suddenly perked up spectacularly for the Saturday and various Whats App messages later, we had agreed to meet up and join this super fit pair but for Carn Mor Dearg only (pron Carn More Jerrak)
One lesson we have learned is that, while Chris and I still climb hills within or even under ‘book’ time (which we are quite proud of I have to say, not bad for a couple of old gits) Gregor and Lucy ‘Climbing Time’ is not something we can match. Yes, they do slow down for us of course but we hate holding them up and try to up our game a bit more, which usually results in complete exhaustion!
So – with a big climb ahead from sea level, we planned to start off a good bit before they did (they were travelling down to Fort William from beyond Inverness), have a break after an hour or so’s walking and wait for them to catch up.
We travelled to Fort William from Ardnamurchan so had a great view of our objective from across Loch Linnhe – oh help, it looked HUGE! How we would we manage? The usual mild panic set in – I often think hiking a mountain is as much a mental thing as physical (and of course some people would consider it a bit mental anyway to slog our way up thousands of feet.)
Even at 7.45am, we struggled to park at Torlundy but finally squeezed into a space. Too many campervans parked overnight! It was a cool morning, a bit overcast , but the cloud was high.It looked a great day for this biggie!
Off we set through the forest, the great path climbing uphill quite steeply.In about 30 mins we were out in the open moorland thankfully with some lovely views of Ben Nevis and our objective of the day – CMD itself ;it all looked so beautiful.
I am forever grateful that I have ‘found’ the mountains as there is nothing like standing on top of a summit, taking in the amazing views.It puts so much in life into perspective somehow; it’s all so grand and I feel so small in the grand scheme of things; not in a depressing way but in a spiritual way, appreciating the great beauty of our world.The older I get, the more I read about the human condition, the more I think that beauty is the thing that I crave as a deep and very basic need.
In half an hour, we spotted the rough track which branched off the main route we were on and that eventually reaches the CIC Climbers hut in the glen (a fine lower level walk in itself). Taking this left fork, we were immediately onto boggy rough ground, very wet but which we climbed steadily. Spying an outcrop of boulders, we decided to stop here and await sight of Gregor and Lucy – it was great to have a nice long rest too! I often think a couple of nights in the tent, despite it being comfortable, does take it out of us now, living in the outdoors, eating outdoors, sitting round a little fire as night creeps in, keeping warm etc. It had been a very early start too as we’d been up and about around 5am.
After about 20 mins of blissful rest, eating a sandwich (hunger had really kicked in now) and enjoying the views, we spotted them. They missed the turn off and I frantically jumped to my feet to wave to them and try to get their attention. Luckily, after a few mins, they realised their mistake and headed onwards and upwards our way. It was so good to see them and meet up in this grand place!
A bit of chat and we were all on our way again. It really is a joy to experience the high mountains and wild country with those you love.
The path soon improved (it was a bog fest for a while) and became much drier, contouring just below the big rounded shoulder of the mountain – much to my surprise, as I thought it would head directly up onto the ridge. The angle was steady, not steep, but I knew Chris was struggling a bit, the pace having picked up a bit; somehow I had a second wind and felt great. We stopped after another hour or so, beside a small stream and had a breather and a bit more to eat.
The views now to the great north cliffs of Ben Nevis were improving all the time and we could see the so called Halfway Lochan which everyone climbing The Ben passes. Despite the name, it’s not half way up!
Beyond that lay Loch Eil and the distant mountains around Glenfinnan.
Up and at ’em again, the path now rose more steeply to reach the main ridge but it was a good angle of ascent and of course the views were stunning.
Finally, the ridge! And ahead lay the final short section to the sharp pyramid summit of CMD itself. We had seen only a handful of people so far, it was very quiet and a complete contrast to Ben Nevis opposite of course which would be jam packed.
An easy final bit over more bouldery ground and we were on the summit 3 hours after setting off (excluding the half hour we waited initially.)
I felt relieved that Chris and I could now simply enjoy the summit and the remainder of our lunch(sandwiches already gone) – a bag of mixed nuts/dried banana which I’d made up , satsumas, Snickers bar and LOTS of water .I was really glad I’d brought a second small bottle as I was parched. No rush, we could meander back down when we felt like it.
After a good half hours rest, Lucy and Gregor said cheerio and headed down off the summit to begin the Arete itself.
We spent a good hour on the Big Red Cairn just relaxing, enjoying the lovely temperature, watching the tiny figures on the Arete, but not too sure who was who.
The Mamores mountain range to the south began to clear through the rising cloud banks – we could see the white quartz of Stob Ban, the well named White Summit. Away to the north west, the Black Cuillin of Skye was visible as well as the shapely outline of the Isles of Rum and Eigg. Wonderful to admire it all from 4,000 feet up, there’s no feeling like it. Humbling too somehow.
Down we had to go eventually, savouring the views as we went; if anything, everything was becoming even clearer. Not longer huffing and puffing, going down can really take it out of the legs in a different way! But 2 hours later, we were down and detoured slightly to the gorgeous, cool river, just before the forest began. Oh the joy of bathing my hot feet in that cold, almost icy water!
We soon saw Gregor and Lucy, descending from the Halfway Lochan area, picking up a path which took them down to where we were waiting.
They hadn’t spent long on the top of Ben Nevis and were shocked at how busy it was! But, that’s what happens at the top of the UKs highest mountain, it’s always packed in summer, thousands climb it every day.
Not a mountain to do if you want to be alone and in the peace of the high tops. That said , I still think it’s a brilliant experience and there is also something quite ‘communal’ about sharing the joy with others. I don’ t think Chris felt this but everyone is so motivated, there’s high energy in the air. For more on our experience of climbing The Ben last year…
It was an easy walk downhill through the forest back to the cars, then a stop off for coffee and tea and surprisingly excellent Carrot Cake from Costa Coffee on the edge of Fort William. A bit more chat with Gregor and Lucy then goodbye – we headed south to Glasgow, they headed north. Always tough to see them go.
A terrific day out on a great mountain – one to remember!