Tag Archives: Ben Nevis

The Scottish Haute Route

The Scottish Haute Route with lead in and out from Aberdeen to Mallaig

At the end of April I cycled and skied my way across Scotland, from Aberdeen to Mallaig, incorporating the ‘Scottish Haute Route’ across the Grampian Mountains.

The route of some 225 miles has a total ascent of 34,000ft, covering some of the highest peaks in the UK including Ben Nevis. Paths that crossed deep into the Cairngorm national park made it necessary to use a mix of wild camping and b&b accommodation that was open after the lockdown.

Probably against my better judgement I also strapped my skis to the bike to traverse any snow on offer.

I accessed the route by taking the train from Kings Cross to Aberdeen; leaving at 2pm the direct LNER East Coast journey is a real treat, speeding its way through the English and Scottish countryside to arrive just after dark.

The journey started with a cycle into Kings Cross for the 2pm train to Aberdeen

Aberdeen is a bit of a strange city. All that oil money but there seemed to be more than the usual share of depravation. The main drag was like a ghost-town after 10pm – perhaps it was lockdown. I quickly fled back to my hotel.

Day 1: Aberdeen to Ballater
47 miles, 2,500ft (7hrs)
Weather: Max 6.9 Min 2.1 Rain 4mm Wind NE 9mph
Fisheries, old railway lines, River Dee

The leg from Aberdeen to Ballater generally follows the River Dee

A bit of an inauspicious start in Aberdeen – a glitchy phone led me a merry dance around the town including a tour of the various fisheries by the harbour. I rode back to the city beach to perform the customary wheel dip in the North Sea; a cold day with a freezing onshore breeze and intermittent light rain.

I was soon on my way inland via the A93 and Deeside Cycle Way formed from the Old Deeside Railway Line. A real cycling delight; miles and miles of smooth Tarmac path often very close to the River Dee with its delightful wildlife. Finches of all descriptions seemed to lead the way and far outnumbered people – I probably saw about a dozen others all day.

Day 2: Ballater to Braemar
31 miles, 4,000ft (7hrs)
Weather: Max 8.9 Min 0.5 Rain 1.2mm Wind NNW 7.7mph
Royal castles, abandoned bothies and steep paths

After staying at the excellent Netherley Guest House I was soon on my way to Crathie where I would ‘turn right’ to finally get off the beaten track for the remoter legs of my trip.

Crathie was far smaller than I imagined – the car park for Balmoral was empty, no doubt a result of it being early season and lockdown having only just been lifted. The B976 was soon heading relentlessly uphill, the first test of my endurance pedalling something like 20kg and the bike. I was soon pushing on the steepest section, a local on a racing bike told me where to leave the road.

The gravel / sand track at the start of the section was excellent and progress quick – I was surprised just how good it was. Another cyclist heading toward me remarked that he hadn’t seen so much on a bike since his cycle trek in Tibet 20 years previously.

On reaching Corndavon Lodge I was faced with my first ford to cross, a relatively simple task were it not for the fact that I’d have to get myself and the machine across. The lodge, the first bothy on the Scottish Ski Club’s 1978 traverse, was boarded up.

I pressed on, soon reaching Loch Builg and on to the ruin of Lochbuilg Lodge. It was at this point that I was faced with a steep, single-track, path up to Carn Drochaid and upward to Ben Avon. It was also at this point that I realised that the weight on my bike was going to make it impossible to adhere to my intention of following all the ridges.

After 15 minutes sat among the ruins I changed my plan and retreated back to the River Gairn. I planned to follow the track to Braemar while keeping one eye on other paths westward – none of which appeared to offer any bike friendly options without double backing to Braemar.

As I ascended the path up the shoulder of the 900m Culardoch it was obvious that I’d made the right choice. Despite good weather it was a real struggle at times. I was also a bit deflated as I looked across the valley at the large cornices on Ben Avon in the distance.

From the plateau of Tom na h-Eilrig it was a general downhill descent into Braemar. Time was getting on and I knew I had to arrange a b&b before the dusk chill turned into night.

Day 3: Braemar to Glen Feshie
40 miles, 2,159ft (10.5 hrs)
Weather: Max 7.7 Min 1.2 Rain 2.4mm Wind NNE 8.2mph
Smooth bridleways, rocky paths, rickety old bridges, knee deep fords, bogs

After resolving overnight that I wasn’t going to be able to follow my original planned route across the Cairngorms I’d decided a loose plan to make a decision once I’d reached Linn of Dee, effectively the end of the road – you either retreat or continue on

One idea was to continue on a path to Derry Lodge, an option that would have allowed me to complete a circuit of the Cairngorm 4000s. But the weather was less than ideal – frequent snow and hail showers would have hampered visability high up and on hearing thunder I decided on a plan B and take the low road, a 27-mile wilderness path to Glen Feshie.

The track starts off well and I noticed a few other walkers plus a game keeper on the opposite path. After White Bridge the terrain turns into proper moor – you get the feeling you are a long way from civilisation as you glance up at distant, snow-capped fells.

I was soon faced with a junction at a ford, a walker was changing into ‘sand shoes’ before he headed on his way to Blair Atholl. The path from here soon deteriorated – I made the mistake of fording Geldie Burn on my way to the ruin of Geldie Lodge. These old buildings seem to have a magnetism that draws you in for a closer look. As I stood among the ruins I realised that I’d made yet another wrong turn – the path onward seemed to peter out so I had to re-ford the burn onto the path that deteriorated further – many sections were little more than boggy streams. Progress was slow with the heavy bike – the front wheel kept sinking and at one point I bent the outer chain ring catching a rock. I managed a repair but effectively lost a third of my gears.

You hear the River Eidart before you see it – a waterfall flows through the deep cut in the landscape, progress from here is over a rickety bridge. A couple of the wooden slats were rotten; I decided to carry the panniers across rather than chance the weight of the whole bike.

The bridge more or less marks the high point of the ride after which progress is more or less all downhill. The change in the landscape is quite marked; the valley becoming much steeper and more wooded, it reminded me a lot of Valsesia in Piemonte.

Serious erosion on the path of the eastern bank of the River Feshie made it necessary to ford the river three times. With the light starting to fade I began looking for a suitable camping spot. Ruigh Aiteachain, my scheduled overnight stop was now on the wrong side of the river and Glenfeshie Lodge was still not open after the lockdown. Because it was a good road I decided to keep going and after passing through a hamlet I found a spot on the river bank as light really was fast fading. Conscious that cows were in the vicinity I crossed over to a dried overflow bed and pitched the tent. This was the first time I’d had the tent out of its bag and though easy to pitch I was cursing that I hadn’t had a least one practice in the garden in the months since I’d bought it.

Forty miles and nearly 11 hours in the saddle it had been the hardest day’s biking ever. After brushing my teeth I crawled into my sleeping bag and sleep quickly followed.

  • Incoming showers of hail seen from the road to Linn of Dee
  • A gorge under the bridge at Linn of Dee
  • A gorge under the bridge at Linn of Dee
  • A gorge under the bridge at Linn of Dee
  • No going back
  • The path from Linn of Dee
  • Carn Mor, 634m
  • Carn Liath, 818m
  • Sgor Mor, 813m
  • White Bridge over the Dee
  • Cairn Toul at the top of the valley from White Bridge
  • A bothy seen from where the track splits. Turn left for Blair Atholl, right for Glen Feshie
  • Cnapan Garbh, 674m
  • A ford over Geldie Burn, one of many
  • Heavy snow showers really hampered visibility at times
  • Heavy snow showers really hampered visibility at times
  • An Sgarsoch, 1006m
  • From heavy snow to bright sun in minutes
  • From heavy snow to bright sun in minutes
  • The ruin of Geldie Lodge at 530m
  • The ruin of Geldie Lodge at 530m. This turned out to be yet another wrong turning
  • An Sgarsoch, 1006m
  • Back on track though the path turned into a narrow one which hampered progress, especially with the low panniers
  • One of many rests on the rocky path
  • The path and burn could be seen stretching into the distance
  • The foothills of the Cairngorm 4000s
  • The waterfalls on the River Eidart can be heard long before you see them
  • The waterfalls on the River Eidart can be heard long before you see them
  • A rickety bridge spans the River Eidart - some of the wooden slats have seen better days
  • A rickety bridge spans the River Eidart - some of the wooden slats have seen better days
  • Safely over, I imagine the waterfalls present a refreshing rest stop in the summer
  • Subtle changes in the landscape as the valley morphs into Glen Feshie
  • Glen Feshie. The steep-sided valley with abundant woodland reminded me of Val Sesia in Piemonte
  • A huge tree, possibly felled in a storm
  • This tree had completely snapped at the base of the trunk
  • This tree had completely snapped at the base of the trunk
  • The River Feshie. Yet another ford
  • Safely over the other side. Because of erosion of the path the river had to be forded three times
  • Distant snowy peaks
  • Camping on the banks of the Feshie
  • Bridge over the Dee at Linn of Dee

Day 4: Feshiebridge to Loch Doire nan Sgiath 38 miles 3,431ft ascent 11 hours (2 hours in Kingussie)
Weather: Max 7.6 Min 0.4 Rain 2mm Wind NNE 4.4mph
Castles, lochs, distilleries and dozens of deer

The dawn chorus awoke me just before 6am along with the reassuring sound of raindrops – not to mention the comforting hum of the fast-flowing River Feshie. It was time to break camp.

Packing everything up seemed to take an age, it wasn’t much before I was pedalling again back to the road at Feshiebridge. With a dead phone I made a beeline for Kingcraig but soon found myself pedalling on to Kingussie where I found a cafe to recharge my electronics and myself.

Although polite I found the locals to be a bit standoffish after exchanging the usual initial pleasantries. I resolved to listen to the conversations of others as they came and went; the hot topic seemed to be the coming election and more than one person exclaimed that they had ‘no interest whatsoever in who bought Boris’s curtains’.

At Newtonmore I swapped the old A86 for the B9150 and another cycle path that more or less trekked all the way to Dalwhinnie. From here it was another delightful lochside path along Loch Ericht.

Old castle-like lodges

Day 5: Loch Doire nan Sgiath to Fort William
32 miles, 1287ft (4.5 hrs)
Weather: Max 8.1 Min 2.8 Rain 1mm Wind NE 4.3mph
Glass-smooth lochs, giant pines, empty castles

After a much better overnight camping stop I rode on to Fort William. The path down to Loch Laggan, a gravel track suddenly turns into the smoothest Tarmac road before you reach ‘Kings Grave’, a Scottish castle that looks like something out of a Hammer studios production. There wasn’t a soul around – I was half expecting Klove to suddenly appear at the door.

The path along the southern shore of Loch Laggan offered superb views of snow-capped Creag Meagaidh – clouds of vapour could be seen as the strong spring sunshine evaporated the wintry precipitation that had fallen overnight.

The original plan to proceed to Corrour shooting lodge was abandoned as steep paths beyond effectively blocked my way west. From here it was a straightforward, mostly downhill, onward path into Fort William.

Day 6: Fort William – Observatory Gully, Ben Nevis
30 miles, 5,194ft (11.5 hrs)
Weather: Max 8.6 Min -2.1 Rain tr Wind WSW 7.5mph
A little skiing at last

After abandoning efforts to go up Aonach Mor – impossible even with half the panniers / weight left in the b&b – the day’s climbing didn’t really start until 3pm from the North Face car park.Lots of ‘you’re mad’ odd looks though with words of encouragement from walkers and climbers on the way up to the CIC hut at 2,231ft.Knackered but with the sight of the snowline just a few hundred feet higher I transferred the skis to the pack, locked the bike and continued on to the snowline, around 2,700ft up Observatory Gully. Ski boots and crampons on at 6pm I went higher to the small buttress at 3,900ft. With one eye on the clock the skis went on and a slide back down lumpy snow. I’d travelled 210 miles and climbed 18,571ft for a ski descent of 1,246ft. Is this the longest ‘walk in’ to a ‘ski tour’ ever?I made it back to Fort William as the last light of the day faded at 9.30pm

Day 7: Fort William – Mallaig:
43 miles, 3,031ft (5 hrs ish)
Weather: Max 6.3 Min 2.3 Rain 4mm Wind NE 16.3mph
Stormy lochs, rusting boats, Harry Potter steam trains, railway viaducts, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the best wee dram I’ve ever tasted.

I totally underestimated this leg, thinking it would be a plod to the coast. The last fifth turned me directly into the stormy winds – even on declines I seemed to be buffeted back uphill, I had to resort to walking on large sections.

What I thought was the last hill turned out to be the last but three. I cursed my lot out loud and, approaching delirium, convinced myself that Scottish miles must be longer than English miles.

No matter, I arrived in Mallaig and dipped the wheel in the harbour before finding a pub for the best pint and wee dram I’ve ever tasted.

I’d been lucky with the weather though days like this would have made the tour impossible in this timescale.

Though the challenge is complete I’m still raising funds for Young Minds, a brilliant charity for our youth who have suffered greatly being cooped up over the past year.

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-portal/fundraiserPage?pageId=1277128

Cathedrals of snow

Snow is ever present in the UK in most years though you have to look hard to find it in high summer.

A dedicated group of enthusiasts, led by Iain Cameron, chart and catalogue these snow patches – many of which are hidden or only seen as distant white dots during Scottish Highland walks.

Responding to an appeal in September I met up with Iain and other volunteers to chart the patches in Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain.

Our route up in the shadow of the magnificent north face of the Ben was a warm one; to our left a procession of ant-like figures were tracking the CMD arrete route to the summit, walkers making the most of the amazing weather.

The North Face path up to the Ben was easy to follow under clear blue skies. My previous visits to the fogged-in summit required map and compass.

Out of the sunshine it was noticeably colder in Observatory Gully; being north facing it sees very little of the sun even in mid June, slowing down the rate of melt of the snow which can be tens of feet thick by the end of the snowfall season. Being encased in snow for so long obviously has a chilling effect on the rock.

The walk up on the scree was hard work and I was surprised to see so many debris including parts of large parts of old galvanised chimney cowls, the legacy of the observatory that once sat proudly on top of the Ben. Not many people trek this way, being a bit of a cul-de-sac. To reach the 1,345m summit from here requires a 200m climb at the end.

As we edged higher the dot of snow grew ever larger and is surprisingly big by the time we reached it, Iain was surprised how hard the snow was. From Iain’s reports, published in the Royal Meteorological Society’s Weather magazine, I’d been fascinated by the images of the patches with naturally carved tunnels underneath them; the light inside the ‘cave’ has a gorgeous blue hue to it.

The light inside the snow patch has a gorgeous blue hue to it. It is understandable why so many are drawn to these ‘cathedrals of snow’.

It was at this moment that I realised that this was a large part of the draw of tracking these patches; a fascination with snow in an area where the odds of it existing all year round seem to be forever diminishing.

At the start of Observatory Gully the snow patch is a tiny dot.
On closer inspection the snow patch is a few dozen feet across and is far bigger than it looks from the valley.

Seasons of melt and snowfall

Snow has only vanished entirely in Scotland six times. Three of these occasions were in 2003, 2006 and 2017.

Mean temperature statistics from Cairngorm Summit show just how much the seasons can vary. Of course mean temperature is just one variable that affects snow survival rates. For example the Western Highlands saw huge amounts of snow fall in February and March above 300m, a factor that would have helped snow survive. Though the most recent melt season was 0.4C cooler than 2019 there was probably a far greater volume of snow.

* Because of the unreliable nature of mountain-top records the Met Office data for Cairngorm Summit has some large gaps, it is only the last 5 years that have complete records . I discounted any years that were missing more than 5% of data.

Ben Nevis: a serious mountain

Strong winds, hail, sleet and snow were experienced in abundance when I climbed the UK’s highest mountain at the weekend. ben start

To give us a chance of making it to the 1,345m summit and back we left Fort William in darkness. Heavy rain that had greeted our arrival the previous day had abated but the spooky balminess of this early January remained; a local thermometer was reading 11C at 7am!

A gorgeous purple hue tinged the early morning dawn as we began our ascent though it was not long before the rain returned.

 

Proceeding upwards, after about an hour, we passed another climber who was walking down, having abandoned his attempt because of ‘atrocious conditions’. “I’m more of an ice and snow climber,” he explained, telling us how wonderful conditions had been in Zakopane, Poland, just a few days previous.

Unperturbed we pushed on soon making it to the tarn – the Lochan Meall an t’Suiche. We had ideas to climb the Ben via the Carn Mor Dearg arête but a wrong turn and conscious that time was not on our side we turned back and continued on the pony track / tourist route. Just over two hours in we passed the ford, just below which the route begins zig-zagging its way up to the summit.ben tarn

By now the rain started to get heavier. At around 900m it turned to hail. It was at this point that we passed another climber: “It’s snowing on the summit but you don’t need crampons,” he exclaimed before hurrying on down. We passed a further dozen or so walkers on our way to the summit; all of them looked like they couldn’t wait to get off the mountain. The rain was now a wintry mix of hail, sleet, snow and frozen rain – painful to walk into in the strengthening wind.

ben paul bothyAs the peak started to level out around 1,150m snow was now beginning to settle on the rime that had built up on the cairns; we’d got what we’d come for! It was here, however, that I realised my waterproof trousers weren’t so waterproof. First dampness then rivulets of water began flowing into my boots.

The peak was now well fogged in and for the first time I felt a bit uneasy, conscious of the fact that the wind was also still gathering strength. Regardless, my climbing pal continued to press on just ahead of me. Poor visibility concealed the summit which was still another 100m or so higher. Although he’d previously climbed the Ben (in perfect summer conditions) he’d forgotten exactly where the trig point was and was careful to observe the cornices to the side, so lethal to inexperienced walkers who fall through them every season.

We made a beeline for the bothy close to the trig point; my climbing partner, who was also trying to deal with waterlogged boots, was keen to change socks. At that point a gust of wind caught the bothy door – it smashed open leading to the rime that had built up on the hut to fall to the ground. I was starting to feel well out of my comfort zone and I persuaded him against the sock change, saying we needed to turn around and get down as quickly as possible. Despite both having crampons in our rucksacks I decided against spending more precious time trying to wrestle them on to our boots. Although the ground was coated in rime I knew that the warm front that was coming in was already lifting the temperature – and we’d cope without them.

ben paul trig

The route down was easier if unpleasant. Once we’d descended far enough out of the cloud and wind I knew we’d be OK and it was just a case of taking it steady over the uneven cobbles.

Night was fast drawing in by the time we arrived back at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre. As we called a cab for the short drive back to Fort William all I could think about was a hot bath back at the hotel and a welcome pint by the fireside.

All around Fort William it is frequently mentioned that conditions at the top are totally different and that the Ben should not be under-estimated. As someone with nearly four decades of experience of being in and around mountains I should know better than most. But Ben Nevis is not just any mountain and deserves complete respect.

The meteorology of the climb

aonach
The temperature trace shows that the warm front arrived after 11am

aonach wind
The WSW wind was gusting F6/F7 giving a windchill of -5C and lower

* Despite the awful conditions I did manage to get a few photos, including the observatory where Victorian scientists lived for 20 years, gathering meteorological observations until 1904. Experiencing just a taste of the conditions that they would have had to endure makes their achievement all the more remarkable.
The observations have recently been fully collated and are providing valuable insight into the study of how mountain conditions have changed since that time.

** The following article was printed in the Lochaber News, 9th January, 2013

Stupidity can get you killed

The leader of Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team has issued a strongly-worded warning in the wake of a walker’s “act of sheer stupidity” in trying to tackle Ben Nevis in winter in trainers.

John Stevenson (58), who heads up Britain’s busiest mountain rescue unit, said a man rescued on Monday afternoon was fortunate to be alive after attempting the country’s highest peak without proper equipment for the conditions and time of year.

The 31-year-old walker was airlifted to hospital in Fort William after he fell while descending the 4,409ft, snow-covered Ben. He sustained a leg injury while walking on the main mountain track and managed to alert the police to his situation at about 4pm.

A full search and rescue operation was launched involving police, 18 mountain rescuers and a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Gannet, Prestwick.

The injured man was located and airlifted from the Red Burn area, above Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, and was treated at Belford Hospital for his injury and the effects of the cold.

Mr Stevenson said the incident could have turned to tragedy.

He said: “He’s an extremely lucky young man to have survived.”

“His equipment was just rubbish – he had nothing. He was wearing trainers and didn’t have a torch.”

“He did everything we tell people not to do. When we found him he’d lost one trainer, the backside was out of his trousers and he was wet and cold.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he would not have survived the night if he hadn’t phoned in on his mobile, and we were lucky enough to find him.”

“He didn’t actually set off on his ascent until 11am, having come straight off the train at Fort William. That’s just a ridiculous time to be starting out when darkness falls at about 4pm. It’s crazy and not on at all.”

“He made it to the summit okay but slipped on the way back down and managed to call the police on his mobile phone.”

Mr Stevenson added: “Initially he was on the so-called tourist path but he lost his way and veered off the path.”

“He slipped and hurt his leg but kept on walking – but realised he was lost and phoned the police.”

“He was talking to the police as he walked and then the phone just went dead. All the officer could hear was running water.”

“We had been alerted by this time and were on standby, so when the line cut out we all feared the worst.”

“I knew the only place on the top half where you can hear water running like that is the Red Burn, so we sent two members of the team up with the helicopter, as well as members on foot. Luckily the first two found the casualty pretty quickly. He had fallen but was okay. He’d lost his phone.”

Mr Stevenson said he found it increasingly frustrating that, despite annual messages from rescue teams, climbing organisations and the police, walkers were still heading to the mountains ill-equipped for the conditions.

“People need to be prepared,” he urged. “They need to heed the advice about having proper equipment and clothing.”

“The thing is, so many people get away with it every year, but unfortunately many don’t and end up injured – or worse.”

“The man on Monday was very lucky indeed and we could see he was extremely relieved to be off that mountain.”

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