Ledge Route and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete (Ben Nevis)
- This article is an itinerary.
This itinerary describes a circuit route starting and finishing at a deer stile to the north of Ben Nevis (1344m). After reaching the summit via Ledge Route it crosses the Carn Mor Dearg Arete (c.1050m) and returns along the north ridge of Carn Mor Dearg (1220m). There is a choice of approaches to the deer stile from Fort William, the nearest town and a good place to obtain supplies and equipment.
The route is a mild scramble, but it is not a hillwalk. It isn't particularly committing, but because of its length and situation it is unsuitable for novices. It can also be done in reverse, but not to any real advantage (and navigation becomes harder).
Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. It can hold cloud even when surrounding areas are bathed in sunshine, and clouds are damp even if it is not actually raining. Weather conditions can change surprisingly quickly on high ground and wind speeds at height can easily exceed fifty knots, resulting in significant wind chill. For all these reasons, you must take warm clothing and spare gloves, and you should carry light waterproofs even if the weather is good. Wear boots, not sneakers/trainers, ideally with part-worn soles for improved grip. Also essential are water, a map (waterproof maps of Ben Nevis are available in Fort William), and a compass. Water is heavy, so consider taking an extra empty bottle and filling it up at the waterpoint at the CIC hut (see below). Not everybody gets hungry on long days out, but taking at least a sandwich or some chocolate is sensible. Allow at least nine hours, unless you are very confident of your general fitness and ability to maintain pace on uneven ground.
Since a map is essential anyway, these directions assume you have one and hence understand the UK grid referencing system. This is also explained at the website of Ordnance Survey (the United Kingdom's statutory mapping agency) where Microsoft Silverlight users can preview suitable maps. Other browsers are no longer supported, infuriatingly.
Intake Eleven, known to north-facers simply as "The Dam", is an aluminium company water intake tapping the Allt a' Mhuilinn (Mill Burn) at NN148751. It is perfectly hideous, but decently well concealed too, fortunately. All the main approaches to Ben Nevis from the north converge at it. Slightly south of it is a small forestry (ie private) car park, and a deer stile:
The Intake Eleven deer stile at NN148750 is just over two miles NNW of the CIC hut and the well-made direct path linking the two also connects to the public North Face car park about one mile further north at NN145765, road access to which is signposted from Torlundy on the A82. (NB: The footpath from the NF car park is not marked on OS maps yet, but it is signed clearly enough). Cyclists could reach the deer stile by following a forestry track from the Nevis Range Ski Centre at NN172775, but the uphill sections of this are loose and arduous; an alternative is simply to cycle to the NF car park, either via Torlundy or by taking the right turn off the A82 at NN121751 (for Rio Tinto, the aluminium works), crossing the railway and turning left instead of going over the level crossing. At NN134753 either continue along a level path to the car park, or secure your bike here and walk uphill following the main track SE and then ENE, turning left twice on the way to reach a bridge just below Intake Eleven itself, where the path from the NF car park emerges from the plantation. Walkers based in Fort William can use the same approach, or could catch a bus to the distillery and follow the footpath behind the barrel store to merge with the track at NN132752, shortly before it turns uphill.
The CIC hut and waterpoint
The CIC hut (NN168722) is actually a stone cottage, named after Charles Inglis (pron 'ING-gulls') Clark, the son of two pioneering Nevis climbers who was killed by a Mesapotamian sniper in 1918. The huge vertical buttress due west of it is that of Carn Dearg (NW). (The compass direction distinguishes it from the eponymous south-eastern flank of the Ben, a more peaceful spot typically reached by an undistinguished clamber from the Polldubh crags in Glen Nevis but best bagged by walking from the top of Surgeon's Rib, another grade one scramble approached from the top of a stone wall south of the old graveyard marked on both OS maps.)
The most useful feature at the hut is the waterpoint, a black pipe that spews water drawn from above the sheep-line. This saves carrying a day's supply 2200ft (c. 700m) from sea level. (The hut is almost exactly half-way to the summit, altitude-wise).
Approaching Ledge Route directly
Due west, the immense gully to the left of Carn Dearg Buttress (NN163722), running forward and almost entirely viewable from the CIC, is Number Five. Free of snow it is graded an Easy climb. The two buttress faces to the left of it are the upper and lower Moonlight Gully Buttresses, both of Moderate grade, the lower being characterised by a distinctive letterbox-like cave. As is usual for north face gullies, the top pitch of Five is the most awkward, but quite near the bottom is the slightly tricky Fork pitch. This is the first climbing difficulty after an easy clamber over boulders (and, in early season, snow), but just before these two broken clefts the gully can be evaded to the right via a grassy slope and some damp slabs leading to a fairly easy left-rising ravine up to the southern crest of Carn Dearg Buttress. This is Ledge Route Direct. All the ledge routes are grade one (ie easy) scrambles, but the damp slabs demand respect in wet conditions: the line of least resistance follows a very faint crack system rightwards before breaking left, up, and out.
Five Gully can hold snow until mid-season but a simple flanking variation avoids Five Gully itself, though it does not avoid the damp slab crux and loose upper ravine. Very near the top of the scree cone from Five, move 10m right along a grassy bank. Scramble slightly leftward up an obvious system of easy cracks parallel to Five gully. Break right up a worn grassy slope to the crux slabs. Even in dry conditions these slabs are the most awkward pitch on the way to the cliff-top. They are bypassed by two longer versions of Ledge Route, described shortly. However, because the flank variation avoids Five Gully altogether, it is the only route to become clear of snow in very early season (May).
From the CIC, the direct Ledge Routes are best reached from the slabs well right of the CIC waterpoint as one faces the letterbox buttress, beginning with a short descent to cross the merged watercourse from Coire na Ciste. Alternatively, two longer Ledge Routes avoid the damp slabs right of Five Gully, joining the two direct routes at the top of Carn Dearg Buttress:
Approaching Ledge Route from Coire na Ciste
The highly scenic Ledge Route via Coire na Ciste (NN163718) crosses a pleasing watergorge, and is therefore (and even in mist) a recommended route through the face. It also avoids the slab crux. It is the least-resistant line through North Face, and begins by surmounting the rough slabs south-west of the CIC hut before dropping into and across a grassy corrie, crossing the watercourses low down and ascending the right bank, traversing a scree cone leftward and climbing slabs to the right of a deep gorge. This runs dry at height, and an intermittent path crosses and ascends left of (and occasionally entering) the now bouldered gully, leading to the north end of Coire na Ciste. From here traverse abruptly hard right over rocks to pick up a path running due north below upward-leading outcrops under a steep wall, to the top of the letterbox buttress, a justly celebrated viewpoint, but nothing to what follows: Continue the upslant into and across Number Five Gully to the top of Carn Dearg Buttress, passing a large and seemingly improbable rock pedestal before pausing to appreciate a tremendous and vertiginous panorama at the top of the main buttress. All the Ledge Route variations converge here, before ascending an obvious crest, and, via the (equally obvious) close pair of ledges themselves, to the clifftop at 1200m.
An even longer version of this approach begins with a southern and then south-western scramble over slabs and, later, scree, from the CIC hut, initially heading as if to gain Tower Ridge from West Gully. It curves progressively right to reach Coire na Ciste, passing underneath the colossal Douglas Boulder (NN167718) and crossing a principle watercourse near and below an impressive steep-sided black gorge. It is imposing and more arduous than the other routes, but is never really difficult unless there is snow at the crossing. After the crossing head uphill trending well right, reaching Coire na Ciste as soon as is practical and heading for the distinctive lochan (pool) at the north end. On a clear day this makes a gradual clockwise survey of the finest caldera and rock architecture in mainland Britain. From Coire na Ciste it joins the previous approach to slant gently upwards to and over the letterbox buttress and left into and across Number Five Gully to the top of Carn Dearg Buttress. This route is particularly recommended to strong parties intending to cross to Carn Mor Dearg via the arete below the summit of Ben Nevis, provided they've started early, because the combination tours almost the entire North-East Face. Some 'mere scramblers' might not make it all the way for interest in the rocks above: the east ridge of Garadh na Ciste will prove barely resistible even if they pass the threatening west ridge of the Douglas Boulder without succumbing to the urge to "have a look at it". Either diversion abandons Ledge Route in favour of the grade three (serious) scramble up Tower Ridge (though it is possible to traverse rightward from the top of the Garadh to the slightly less demanding slopes of Raeburn's Easy Route).
The Ledge Route scramble
The main Ledge Route scramble line begins at the top of Carn Dearg Buttress and follows the obvious gentle upward ridge west. It reaches the Ledges after perhaps 200m and the cliff edge is about 150m further up the crest line.
An awkward gully top is crossed after roughly 100m just before the ridge narrows and curves left (southwest) briefly. It soons returns to west and after a few very simple rock problems, reaches the ledges. This is just a small flattish area with a better view of the upper Trident Buttress to the south and Number Six gully and castle ridge to the north. Apart from one rounded step, the rest of the ridge is easy ground until a final steepening and an unsurmountable wall on the right, speckled with much whiteish lichen. This difficulty is best evaded to the left when there is a choice between an sporting but possibly ill-advised immediate return to the crest or an easier ascent up the left flank at the same grade as the foregoing.
The awkward gully top mentioned above is that of the 35m Fives Gully (VDiff), not to be confused with the 450m (Number) Five Gully already described. The top is most easily negotiated by stepping down the first (eastmost) of two cracks on the right a few metres before the end of the approach wall and moving carefully along a thin ledge to the base of the second, from where a confident stride or short jump ends the difficulties. Be aware that there are several exposed areas around here, especially on top of the wall.
From Carn Dearg to Ben Nevis
The cairn at the top (1214m) of Ledge Route is about a one-and-a-half kilometre walk from the summit of Ben Nevis and presents no difficulty on a clear day. Navigation is not difficult even in cloud, and consists of passing three major gully-tops in turn, counting down from Number Five to Number Three, at which point the tourist track is very close at hand. The top of Five gully is mere yards from the Ledge Route cairn, and can be recognised by the steep rock of the north wall. From here there are two ways to reach Four Gully, either by following the cliff, taking in the view from Carn Dearg summit (1221m), or by walking a contour, using the fact that the top of Four Gully is at a lower altitude (in fact it is the lowest point on the cliff-line). Hence it is impossible to overshoot it without walking downhill, though on clear days the view from Carn Dearg is well worth taking-in.
The top of Four Gully is marked by a large, well-constructed cairn built in 2012 by Martin McCrorie to replace an older summit post deemed unseemly by the John Muir Trust, custodians of the top half of Ben Nevis since June 2000. The best way to make your way from Four Gully to Three is to follow the cliff-line fairly closely. This passes the top of a couple of minor gullies on the way (as well as some vertiginous drops), but Three Gully is easily identifiable by a large pinnacle dividing the gully-top. The ground here is often muddy but with care it is possible to walk the few metres out to the top of the pinnacle and look down the gully. The CIC hut can be picked out 2000ft (600m) lower down. Beyond the gully an anti-clockwise downclimb and (highly exposed) traverse-return on the southern buttress headwall may interest very experienced scramblers.
From here head directly uphill - roughly south-east - and follow a straight line until you reach the tourist path leading to the summit. In cloud you will very likely hear people on the path before you reach it, but in any case it is impossible to miss unless there is substantial snow on the ground. This isn't all that likely except in early season (May/June), but if so it is possible to follow a sequence of cairns to the summit: be aware that the correct line veers abruptly left at a cluster of three. Remember also that snow on the summit means cornices (overhangs of snow) at the cliff edge, so keep your distance from it.
Getting down in a hurry
If you need to descend in an emergency, it is best to follow the above directions until you have found the tourist path, although you can safely head due south from Three Gully rather than walking uphill - you will certainly come across the path very shortly either way. Follow it downhill (very slightly north of west initially) all the way to Glen Nevis.
The Carn Mor Dearg Arete
The arete joins the south-eastern shoulder of Ben Nevis about a thousand feet (300m) below the summit, and reaching the start involves a substantial descent of a fairly steep boulderscape. From the east end of the summit ruins locate the large, incongruous metal frame of a discarded instrument carriage. From the closest point of the ruin sight through the case and walk that line until the edge of the plateau is reached, then head directly downhill for a quarter of a kilometre until the angle begins to ease slightly. Trend left to the crest and follow it downhill to a well-constructed cairn similar to that at the top of Number Four Gully. This marks the west end of the arete. Follow the arete east and then north-east to the summit of Carn Mor Dearg. Keep to the crest, ignoring the odd section of intermittent path on the south side.
The north ridge of Carn Mor Dearg
On a clear summer day there are outstanding views of the north-east face from this ridge. Whilst it is possible to descend Carn Mor Dearg directly down to the CIC, this is steep and not advised. Better is to follow the ridge northwards, first to the subsidiary top Carn Dearg Meadhonach, then to the unnamed top halfway to the northernmost, Carn Beag Dearg. In high summer, stay for the sunset because the light will last long enough to get down.
There is an unmade path downhill, boggy in places but easy enough to follow even after sunset. Finding the start isn't as straightforward, but a reliable method is to descend a depression due west of the low point of the ridge below the unnamed top on the way to Carn Beag Dearg. This becomes a ravine with boulders on the right flank and an easy grass bank on the left. The path comes in from the left and crosses the ravine - which has become stream by now - below the boulders. Follow the path all the way down to where it joins the CIC path about a third of a kilometre south of the deer style.
- Fort William is by far the largest town in Lochaber. Although less than picturesque itself, it is the most obvious base from which to explore this beautiful county further. However, some of the best walking in the area is to be found on the Mamores ridge for which Kinlochleven is the most logical starting point.